Researchers from the University of Illinois studied 116 healthy adults between the ages of 65 and 75 to see if diet could impact cognitive ability, looking specifically at 32 key nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet – which focuses heavily on plant-based foods, healthy fats, and herbs and includes some fish products – has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer as well as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Researchers analyzed nutrient biomarkers in participants’ blood alongside magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to assess the performance of certain networks in the brain.
“The basic question we were asking was whether diet and nutrition are associated with healthy brain aging. And instead of inferring brain health from a cognitive test, we directly examined the brain using high-resolution brain imaging,” lead researcher Professor Aron Barbey said in a statement.
They found that various nutrient biomarkers in the blood are linked to bettered brain health and cognitive connectivity. Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, alpha- and beta-carotenoids, and vitamins D and B – all of which the Mediterranean diet is rich in – were associated with more efficient brain function.
“Our study suggests that diet and nutrition moderate the association between network efficiency and cognitive performance,” Barbey said. “This means that the strength of the association between functional brain network efficiency and cognitive performance is associated with the level of the nutrients.”
The study joins a growing bank of research linking vegan and vegetarian foods to improved brain health. A review published in September that looked at 41 studies concluded that a mostly plant-based Mediterranean diet could help prevent depression. Another study found that a whole foods, plant-based diet could assist with healthy cellular aging.
Another recent study says women who follow a Mediterranean diet have a 25 percent lower risk of heart disease than meat-eaters.
“Our study has a strong public health message that modest changes in known cardiovascular disease risk factors, particularly those relating to inflammation, glucose metabolism and insulin resistance, contribute to the long-term benefit of a Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular disease risk,” study lead author Shafqat Ahmad said in a statement.
But the benefits of plant-based foods move beyond the mind, too. As the health risks of meat and dairy consumption – especially diabetes, heart disease, and cancer – become exposed, more researchers are looking at the relationship between nutrition and health. Many are finding that a vegan diet is most effective at improving general health, combatting disease, and extending life expectancy.
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