Eating according to the Mediterranean diet may help preserve memory and reduce the risk of dementia. Two of the most common causes of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, or damage to blood vessels that restrict blood flow to the brain.

Inflammation in the brain may also play a role. It can lead to the buildup of certain proteins, which block the signals between neurons and other communication pathways, and it can cause the death of brain cells. However, these changes happen gradually over many years, and, fortunately, some of them can be slowed or prevented through lifestyle.

Researchers in a Journal of the American Geriatrics Society study observed that Americans in their 60s and 70s who followed a mainly Mediterranean-style diet had a 35 percent decrease in the risk of cognitive impairment, specifically in long-term and short-term memory and attention.

In a clinical study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers reported that people who ate according to the Mediterranean diet improved their cognitive function, including scores in memory and executive function (planning, focusing).

To make it easier to incorporate the Med diet into your daily lifestyle, we recommend several strategies:

Eat spices, herbs, and seeds daily

Spices, herbs, and seeds contain bioactive phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. You may have heard of free radicals, which are unstable molecules that cause damaging chemical reactions in the body. The bioactive components in many spices help stabilize those free radicals and neutralize their damaging effects. Here are just a few highlights on exciting research:

  • Sesame. Researchers conducting animal tests using sesamol, the active ingredient in sesame seeds, found improvements in behavioral memory tests and in some cognitive impairments, potentially from reduced brain plaque.
  • Turmeric contains curcumin, which can reduce and even correct oxidative stress, the imbalance of free radicals in the body. Some research (both animal and epidemiological studies) on turmeric has shown promise for combating Alzheimer’s. Turmeric may even help antidepressants work better.
  • Ginger is anti-inflammatory and protective for the brain. In animal studies, ginger has been found to help protect against age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s-like changes in behavior. A high dose of ginger extract was shown to help women do better on tests of reaction time and working memory.
  • Cinnamon is high in the formidable bioactive cinnamaldehyde. This component may help protect against some of the changes in brain structure that occur with neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, although more research is needed.
  • Chili peppers. Chili peppers are actually fruits, and the capsaicin content of hot chili peppers makes them potent protectors of brain health. Some researchers have even suggested that people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease should supplement with capsaicin daily to potentially stave off some of the effects of the disease. In animal studies, capsaicin has reduced the blood levels of certain Alzheimer’s markers and even reversed cognitive decline. In a clinical study involving people over 40, capsaicin was associated with better cognition and also lower Alzheimer’s blood biomarkers. Along with capsaicin, chilis are high in vitamin C, which may help with brain cell protection, growth, and function.
  • Herbs. Researchers have found that fresh and even dried herbs—including basil, cilantro (also known as coriander), dill, mint, parsley, rosemary, sage, and tarragon—are rich sources of anti-
    inflammatory phytochemicals called carotenoids.

To preserve maximum antioxidant content, flavor, and aroma, we suggest buying some spices—like nutmeg, coriander, caraway, and cumin—in their whole, not ground, form. Smaller, softer seeds, like cumin and caraway, can be used whole in recipes. You can also grind them yourself in a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder (peppercorns) or grate with a microplane (whole nutmeg). When they are ground and then stored, spices and seeds can oxidize (losing antioxidant potential) and lose aroma. That said, the spices we use daily, like cinnamon and cumin, we also buy ground for convenience. (If spices have lost their aroma, simply use more in a recipe.)

Use extra-virgin olive oil daily

Use extra-virgin olive oil as your main fat daily. It’s a strong inflammation fighter and is rich in plant phenolic compounds that may counter oxidation in the brain. Associations between olive oil and cognitive health have been appearing in research journals for the last several decades. In one large randomized controlled study in Spain, researchers found that those following a Mediterranean diet and using 1 liter (about 4 cups) of olive oil per household per week was associated with better cognitive function after about six years, and also lower incidence of cognitive impairment or dementia.

Enjoy berries

Berries, whether fresh, frozen, or dried, contain a variety of components that may contribute to brain health. Many brain-friendly nutrients like vitamin C,
vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and fiber are found in berries. Berries also appear to contain lesser-known components that are associated with brain health. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center found that older people who ate more berries (especially strawberries) over a period of 20 years had fewer of the brain tangles that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.

Drink coffee daily

Did you know that coffee beans are actually the seeds of the coffee cherry, the fruit of the coffee tree? Coffee is the single highest food source of antioxidants in most people’s diets. A variety of coffee polyphenols may help target free radicals that can cause brain cell damage. Other antioxidants may help keep brain blood vessels healthy and free from blockage. In a 10-year study involving more than 600 elderly men, those who drank coffee had less cognitive decline than those who did not. Three (small) cups a day seemed to be the sweet spot. Several elements in coffee may be valuable for brain function, including caffeine, which can increase serotonin, the “feel good” chemical that regulates many brain tasks.

Eat fiber and probiotics daily

Fiber keeps you “regular,” but it also helps your brain. The central nervous system and the intestinal tract are connected in a communication network known as the gut-brain axis. When the gut is healthy, the brain generally is, too. Of course, the opposite can be true. One of the easiest ways to keep the gut healthy is to nourish the good bacteria found there. Dietary fiber keeps the bacteria diverse and plentiful. Most all types of vegetables and fruits contain fiber. But some have a type of fiber that is especially good for feeding good gut bacteria; this is known as prebiotic fiber. These prebiotic foods include onions, garlic, artichokes, leeks, asparagus, apples, barley, and whole-wheat foods. Variety is key to growing diverse and valuable intestinal good bacteria, so mix up your sources: Eat lots of legumes, whole grains, and canned, frozen, and fresh fruits and vegetables. (Bonus source: the favorite Mediterranean sweetener, honey, also contains prebiotic carbohydrates.) Fiber intake has been linked to reduced gut inflammation and stronger memory, and even improved mental health in some population studies, although the research is not always consistent.

Probiotics may also help with cognition. A 2021 study of Canadian older adults found that cheese and low-fat dairy intake was associated with better executive functioning (planning, juggling tasks, etc.), and yogurt was further associated with improved memory.

Eat seafood twice a week

Researchers have found that supplements of omega-3 fats have inconsistently been linked to cognitive and mental health. That said, the body of research on fish and shellfish has more conclusive evidence linking it to positive brain health, probably because in addition to omega-3s, seafood contains a whole host of other brain-friendly nutrients, including selenium, vitamin D, choline, zinc, and B vitamins.

We put these suggestions into practice in a wide range of recipes in our upcoming cookbook, The Smart Mediterranean Cookbook, published by BenBella books. It will be available in May.

MIND vs Med

You may have heard of the MIND diet and its link to slowing cognitive decline in healthy older adults. Debuting in 2015, the MIND diet is partially based on the Mediterranean diet; the name stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, where DASH refers to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet. Researchers at Rush University followed over 900 older adults and found that those who most closely followed the MIND diet had a 53 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s, while those who most closely followed the Mediterranean diet reduced their risk by 54 percent.

So, since the Mediterranean diet is part of MIND, what’s the difference? There are several. The Mediterranean diet generally includes more fatty fish than does the MIND diet. Research has found a link between eating fish and better mental heath. The same is true for eggs, which contain the important nutrients choline and lutein. These nutrients are critical for the brain, but eggs are not encouraged in the MIND diet. In general, the MIND diet is more restrictive than the Mediterranean diet.


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