As we get older, many of us may notice that we’re not quite as sharp as we used to be. Brain health is something that tends to decline as we age, but emerging science shows us that certain lifestyle habits, like diet and exercise, may not only help us maintain cognitive function, but even improve it! Enter the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean Diet for Brain Health
We’ve already talked about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for gut health. On top of that, research also shows that the eating plan may increase your longevity and reduce your risk of depression! Now, researchers have found evidence that a Mediterranean diet, combined with exercise, may also improve brain health and cognitive function.
In a new study researchers from the University of Illinois and the United States Air Force teamed up to determine if exercise paired with the nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet could benefit physical and mental performance. They assigned an exercise regimen to a group of subjects from the air force for 12 weeks. The subjects were then divided into two groups: one that would take a supplement containing nutrients typically found in the Mediterranean diet, and one that was given a placebo. The Mediterranean diet supplement was high in protein, and contained other nutrients like lutein, omega-3s, phospholipids, folic acid (or folate), B vitamins, and vitamin D.
The subjects were each given a series of cognitive and physical fitness tests before and after the 12-week program. Cognitive assessments tested things like their memory, fluid intelligence (or problem solving abilities), executive function, and reaction time.
The results were incredibly interesting: The group given the placebo supplement showed improvements in five out of six physical fitness measures and only four out of eight cognitive functioning measures. Their cognitive performance increased in short-term memory, episodic memory, executive function reaction time, and fluid intelligence.
On the other hand, those taking the Mediterranean diet-mimicking supplement improved in all six physical fitness measures and six out of eight cognitive measures. Some of the more notable changes were that their working memory increased, fluid intelligence reaction time decreased, lean muscle mass increased, resting heart rate (which is a measure of physical fitness) decreased.
Combining Diet and Exercise
This study highlights the importance of adopting an overall healthy lifestyle if you’re trying to maintain or improve your brain health. We’ve long known that keeping active can help our cognitive functioning. One study even showed that doing yoga as little as twice per week could delay mental decline! However, getting those brain-boosting nutrients like those typically found in a Mediterranean diet could be that extra push you need to stay sharp as you get older.
To eat like they do in the Mediterranean region, choose foods that are rich in healthy fats like fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds), avocados, extra virgin olive oil, lots of fresh fruits and veggies, eggs, lean poultry, grains like quinoa, and dairy products like Greek yogurt. At the same time, limit your intake of processed foods (any white carbohydrate foods, meats like sausage), refined oils like canola, vegetable, or soybean oil, and foods containing processed sugar like soda, ice cream, or candy.
Here’s to keeping our wits for as long as possible!