Last year, three anthropologists from New York published research which revealed that brain size of non-human primates is predicted by diet.
Whether this finding applies to humans is unknown, but if it does, it will be of huge significance, because after the age of 40, the brain shrinks by five percent every decade, and this smaller volume is linked to loss of cognitive function.
If we could stop or slow down this shrinkage, it would be a big deal.
There’s already evidence we can. A group of researchers from the Netherlands looked into the connection between diet and brain volume (in humans, this time). They published their findings in Neurology in May. The results are encouraging. . .
Good Diet – Bigger Brain
Seven researchers from Erasmus University in Rotterdam handed out questionnaires to 4,213 people with an average age of 66 and free of dementia.
The participants were asked to pick out what they ate during the previous month from a list of 400 items.
Based on Dutch guidelines, the researchers ranked each person’s diet according to its quality from zero (poor) to 14 (most healthful). The average score for the whole group was 7.
The guidelines focus on eating fruits and vegetables (14 ounces/day), whole grains (three ounces/day), dairy (two portions/day), fish (weekly), legumes (weekly), unsalted nuts (half ounce/day) and drinking three cups of tea daily.
Poor food choices include refined cereals, butter, hard margarines, hard cooking fats, processed meat, sugary drinks, and unfiltered coffee. They also advise limiting red meat and not drinking more than one alcoholic beverage a day.
I could quibble about some of these recommendations, but by and large they’re on target.
The participants also underwent MRI scans to measure brain volume and identify lesions in the white matter – associated with a greater risk of stroke, dementia, and mortality – and minor brain bleeds.
Even after adjusting the results to take into account factors that could influence the findings such as age, gender, education, exercise, smoking, blood pressure, other relevant health information, and head size, those with higher diet scores were found to have larger total brain volume, gray matter volume and hippocampal volume. The hippocampus is a key area for memory.
Those consuming the best diets had an extra two milliliters of brain volume compared to those choosing the least healthy options. This translates to over 6½ months of reduced brain aging. No association could be found for white matter lesions or brain bleeds.
Choose a Mediterranean-Style Diet
Lead researcher Dr. Meike Vernooij had this to say about the team’s findings:
“There are many complex interactions that can occur across different food components and nutrients, and according to our research, people who ate a combination of healthier foods had larger brain tissue volumes.
“People with greater brain volume have been shown in other studies to have better cognitive abilities, so initiatives that help improve diet quality may be a good strategy to maintain thinking skills in older adults.”
The recommended diet for the people of the Netherlands is similar to the much vaunted Mediterranean diet with its emphasis on vegetables, legumes, fruit, cereals, fish, and monounsaturated fatty acids such as olive oil.
Commenting on the study, Dr. Sarah Imarisio from Alzheimer’s Research UK said that brain size was a useful indicator of brain health and that the charity is “supporting pioneering research into ways we can encourage people at risk to adopt a Mediterranean diet.”
Whether at risk or not, choosing this style of eating is a far better option than the typical American diet where 70% of the calories come from processed foods.