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Diet That Helps You Live Longer May Keep Your Mind Sound, Too

Image: A person holds a bottle of olive oil.

Adding nuts and olive oil to a healthy die can help preserve brain function, a new study shows. AP file

A Mediterranean diet that has been shown to help people live longer and avert heart disease may also help preserve their brains, researchers reported Monday. So maybe you can also enjoy those added years.

The team has been following a group of volunteers in Spain who, in theory, are already following a Mediterranean diet filled with plenty of vegetables and olive oil and low in meat and dairy. Some of the volunteers are also getting extra olive oil or nuts to add to their regular diet, while a third of the people in the group just get advice on eating a low-fat diet.

"Our results suggest that in an older population a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts may counter-act age-related cognitive decline."

The researchers have found lower rates of heart disease and stroke, and a lower risk of dying early, among those who get the olive oil or nuts compared to those who just get the low-fat advice. Now they’ve found evidence that memory and thinking skills may last longer, too.

They singled out 447 volunteers considered at high risk of heart disease. Heart disease and dementia are already linked –- people with a higher risk of one usually have a higher risk of the other, also.

Two groups were assigned to follow the Mediterranean diet and told to add either five 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil a day or a handful of mixed nuts. The third group got the low-fat advice.

Healthy diets mean less chance of memory loss, study says 9:29

The volunteers, who had an average age of 67, were tested from time to time on memory skills. The group who ate the extra nuts did better in terms of memory and the group given extra virgin olive oil performed better on tests that required quick thinking, the researchers report in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine.

Just over 13 percent of those who got extra olive oil were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, which may or may not lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Just 7 percent of those who got nuts were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, while around 13 percent of those who got neither developed memory loss.

But many of the patients actually saw their memories get better over the four years. On average, those in the low-fat-only group lost some memory and thinking skills, but those who got extra nuts had their memory skills improve on average, while those who got olive oil had improvements in problem-solving and planning skills.

"Our results suggest that in an older population a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts may counter-act age-related cognitive decline,” Dr. Emilio Ros of the Institut d'Investigacions Biomediques at Hospital Clinic, Barcelona and colleagues wrote.

“The lack of effective treatments for cognitive decline and dementia points to the need of preventive strategies to delay the onset and/or minimize the effects of these devastating conditions. The present results with the Mediterranean diet are encouraging but further investigation is warranted.”

The findings fit in with research that has shown a Mediterranean-style diet can lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease.