Mediterranean Diet Helps Improve Brain Health by Decreasing Risk of Cognitive Decline

What you eat not only affects your physical health but also the health of your brain. One of the best diets around for your brain seems to be the Mediterranean diet. Why is this diet so good for your thinking?

The Mediterranean Diet Basics

Essentially this diet is based on consuming lots of fish, fruits, vegetables, cereals and healthy unsaturated fats (mostly olive oil), lower amounts of dairy, meat and saturated fats, and regular but moderately healthy alcohol consumption.

Mediterranean Diet Linked To Decreased Risk of Developing Mild Cognitive Impairment

The Mediterranean diet has already been linked to a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in healthy individuals. Recently a study from Columbia University in New York tested whether the Mediterranean diet could benefit people with mild cognitive impairment or MCI. This refers to people who find themselves in the transition stage between normal aging and Alzheimer’s.

This study lasted five years and included:

  • 1393 cognitively normal individuals, 275 of which acquired MCI during the study
  • 482 individuals diagnosed with MCI, 106 of which acquired Alzheimer’s during the study

It was determined that individuals with normal cognitive functions who practiced the Mediterranean diet had a decreased risk of developing mild cognitive impairment. The top third of those who followed the Mediterranean diet closely had a 28% decreased risk of developing MCI and those who were in the middle third of following the diet still had a 17% lower risk.

For those participants with MCI, adhering to the Mediterranean diet was correlated with a reduced risk for the transition between MCI and Alzheimer’s. The top third of the participants who followed the Mediterranean diet the best had a 48% reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Those in the middle third of the diet adherence had a 45% reduced risk.

Factors such as sex, age, ethnicity, genetic makeup, caloric intake and education did not affect these findings.

Why is the Mediterranean Diet Great for the Brain?

Experts agree the Mediterranean diet may improve cholesterol levels, blood vessel health and blood sugar levels as a whole. It might also reduce inflammation (because it involves a high intake of antioxidants). And each of these factors is linked to various forms of dementia and cognitive impairment.

A Word of Caution

This study clearly shows a connection between the Mediterranean diet and mild cognitive impairment risk. However, note that an association between two factors does not necessarily mean that one factor (here diet) directly causes the other (here lower MCI risk). There are various other factors that could create the connection. For example it is possible that individuals following a healthy Mediterranean diet are also very active or have a higher socioeconomic status, each of which could result in overall better health and a decreased risk of MCI.


  • Scarmeas, N., Stern, Y., Mayeux, R., Manly, J. J., Schupf, N., & Luchsinger, J. A. (2009). Mediterranean Diet and Mild Cognitive Impairment. Arch Neurol., 66(2), 216-225.

Last Reviewed 18/Sep/2016


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