Is Olive Oil The Next Brain Food?

Mediterranean diet and cognition tied in new study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Some people may opt for olive oil over Ranch dressing on their salad as a weight loss method. There is a chance that decision may be doing more than just keeping your body slimmer; it could actually be keeping your brain sharper.

New research found a lower likelihood of cognitive impairment in those who followed the Mediterranean diet – a diet that centers on consuming a lot of plant foods and olive oil while limiting saturated fats, meat and dairy.

This research found the healthier your diet, the better you think.

"Try a puzzle to sharpen your brain."

The study, led by Georgios Tsivgoulis, MD, of the University of Athens in Greece, utilized data from the national Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study, which took place in the US between 2003 and 2007.

Dr. Tsivgoulis and team analyzed 17,478 people from the REGARDS data who did not have a history of stroke or cognitive impairment, and for whom complete data was available. All participants were aged 45 years or older and identified as non-Hispanic black or white.  

Participants underwent a cognitive assessment at the beginning of the study and annually until completion, which was an average of four years later. The researchers focused on comparing the participants’ first and last cognitive assessments.

Those whose cognitive screening status shifted from “intact” to “impaired” between the first and last assessment were identified as having “incident cognitive impairment.” Incident cognitive impairment was found in 1,248 people (7 percent of participants).

The diets of participants were examined using food frequency questionnaires and unannounced recollections of food consumption for 24 hour blocks of time. The researchers established whether participants had a high or low adherence to the Mediterranean diet from this data.

It was determined that 52.5 percent of participants had a low adherence to the Mediterranean diet and 47.5 percent had a high adherence.

After analyzing the data, Dr. Tsivgoulis and team found that higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a lower likelihood of incident cognitive impairment. 

This finding held true even after adjusting the data to account for a number of different factors that could have affected the results, including demographic differences, vascular risk factors, self-reported health status and depressive symptoms.

However, the same did not hold true for people with diabetes, who made up 17 percent of the participants. The authors found no significant relationship between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and lower risk of cognitive troubles among these patients.

The researchers found that a higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet was also associated with a number of other factors, including “lower BMI (body mass index), smaller waist circumference, lower prevalence of depressive symptoms, and higher prevalence of excellent self-reported health status.”

It is important to note that dietary data was self-reported and may have been subject to some bias on the part of participants. Furthermore, while this study found an association between consuming a Mediterranean diet and a lower risk of cognitive problems, the exact cause of this association remains unknown.

According to the authors of this study, the Mediterranean diet has been tied to longer life spans and reduced risk of cancer, heart problems and Alzheimer’s disease in other studies.

In an interview with dailyRx News, Deborah Gordon, MD, nutrition and homeopathy expert, suggested looking at the big picture of what makes a healthy diet.

"One of the observations often made when comparing different dietary strategies is that many strategies (Ornish, Atkins, or Mediterranean) all share one common denominator: less processed and refined foods, fewer sweets," said Dr. Gordon.

"Because the current study found no benefit for the diabetics (who all have some degree of carbohydrate toxicity to the point of insulin resistance), it suggests that perhaps the primary benefit in the diet is the avoidance of what might be termed 'toxic' carbohydrates, i.e., refined, sweet, and processed foods," said Dr. Gordon. 

"It's just that, for the diabetics, it's too late for that avoidance to achieve a substantial benefit."

More research is needed to confirm how the Mediterranean diet may interact with brain function, memory, dementia and diabetes. Dr. Gordon suggested that future research also explore if benefits seen from the Mediterranean diet are due to factors like the reduction of carbohydrates or due to the addition of certain foods, like olive oil.

The study was published April 30 by the journal Neurology. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 1, 2013
Last Updated:
August 14, 2013