People who eat a Mediterranean-style diet, particularly one rich in green leafy vegetables and low in meat, are more likely to stay mentally sharp in later life, a study shows.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh tested the thinking skills of more than 500 people aged 79 and without dementia. They found that closely adhering to a Mediterranean diet was associated with higher scores on a range of memory and thinking tests.

The participants completed tests of problem solving, thinking speed, memory, and word knowledge, as well as a questionnaire about their eating habits during the previous year.

Associations between a person's diet and their thinking skills

More than 350 of the group also underwent a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan to gain insights into their brain structure. The team used statistical models to look for associations between a person's diet and their thinking skills and brain health in later life.

The findings show that, in general, people who most closely adhered to a Mediterranean diet had the highest cognitive function scores, even when accounting for childhood IQ, smoking, physical activity and health factors. The differences were small but statistically significant.

 

Dr Janie Corley, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, said: "Eating more green leafy vegetables and cutting down on red meat might be two key food elements that contribute to the benefits of the Mediterranean-style diet. In our sample, the positive relationship between a Mediterranean diet and thinking skills is not accounted for by having a healthier brain structure, as one might expect. Though it's possible there may be other structural or functional brain correlates with this measure of diet, or associations in specific regions of the brain, rather than the whole brain, as measured here."