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Not just scans and cognitive tests: Diet is an indicator of brain health

To measure the brain health of an older adult usually involves cognitive tests for memory and reasoning – and MRI scans to see which parts of the brain are shrinking or thriving.

You can now perhaps add to that the state of your diet. Your diet is a pretty reliable sign that your brain is compromised health-wise.

Researchers from the University of Illinois, discovered that “blood markers of two saturated fatty acids, along with certain omega-6, -7 and -9 fatty acids, correlated with better scores on tests of memory and with larger brain structures in the frontal, temporal, parietal and insular cortices”.

“Our findings reveal that we can use nutrient biomarkers, cognitive tests and MRI measures of brain structure to account for much of the variation in healthy ageing,” said Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology, bioengineering and neuroscience at Illinois, and co-author of the study.

“This allows us to better understand how nutrition contributes to health, ageing and disease.”

It also suggests that diet should be part of the conversation you have with your GP.

The study

According to a statement from Illinois, the researchers collected data from 111 healthy older adults.

The data included MRI structural scans and blood-based biomarkers of 52 dietary nutrients. Also included were cognitive performance on tests of memory and intelligence.

By combining these measures using a data-fusion approach, the team “found associations between dozens of features that appear to work in tandem to promote brain and cognitive health in older adults”.

The most “obvious” clustering involved “the size of grey-matter volumes in the frontal, temporal and parietal cortices; performance on tests of auditory memory and short- and long-term memory; and blood markers related to consumption of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids”.

Those who did more poorly on the cognitive tests also had smaller grey-matter volumes in those brain regions and lower levels of those dietary markers, the analysis revealed.

It can’t be said, yet, that dietary habits directly promote brain health, but the new evidence is highly suggestive.

In practical terms

Newcastle University (UK), in a new study, found you can reduce the risk of dementia, by a quarter, by adopting the Mediterranean diet.

In other words, by eating the kind of brain-pleasing fatty acids named in the Illinois study.

Dig in.

Oily fish is the best source available for omega-3s, also named in the Illinois study.

Olive oil is rich in omega-7 fatty acids.

Omega-9 fats are common in nuts and seeds.

All these fatty acids are central to the Mediterranean diet, which is also the best diet for your heart.

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