Fish may be considered brain food, but eating that fish with loads of fresh vegetables, olive oil and a glass or two of wine may make for clearer thinking, according to a new study.
The research, published in the June issue of the Annals of Neurology, found that New York volunteers who adhered strongly to a Mediterranean diet--which includes moderate amounts of wine with meals--were up to 40 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who ignored the diet or followed it partially. The results were consistent regardless of the race, gender or educational level of the volunteers.
"The diet has been known in previous studies to provide health benefits, especially for the heart," said lead author Nikolaos Scarmeas, a neurologist at Columbia University in New York. (It has also been linked to a reduced risk of deadly diseases such as cancer and to longer life.) "But this is the first study, to our knowledge, that has found a link between the Mediterranean diet and Alzheimer's."
The study, according to the text, was prompted by a lack of data on dietary patterns and the risk of Alzheimer's, and it may be the first to take a holistic look at their relation to each other. In previous studies, the researchers noted, only single ingredients, such as fish oil or wine, were typically studied in relation to brain diseases.
Scarmeas and his team measured the incidence of Alzheimer's in 2,258 New Yorkers who were on Medicare and lived in northern Manhattan. Data on the volunteers was pulled from the Washington Heights and Inwood Community Aging Project, a cohort study of seniors run by Richard Mayeaux, also at Columbia, that aims to observe the onset of dementia in the elderly.
In the Aging Project, each participant was diagnosed by a neurologist and had to be free of brain malfunctions to participate in the study. The volunteers were given a standard physical, an extensive dietary questionnaire and a battery of tests on their reasoning abilities, memory and verbal fluency. Follow-up tests were conducted every 18 months.
To measure the participants' adherence to the Mediterranean diet, the researchers used a nine-point scale developed for a previous study by Antonia Trichopoulou, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School. In short, subjects are assigned a one or a zero for nine aspects of the regimen. For example, a person who drinks in moderation, particularly a glass or two of wine with dinner, receives a one; a person who doesn't drink, or drinks heavier amounts, receives a zero. People receive a one if they eat little dairy and meat or if they eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals and fish. A total score of nine signals a strict Mediterranean follower, and a total of zero would be considered close to the typical American diet.
During the course of the study, which started in 1992 and ran until 2001, 175 participants were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. By comparing these cases across the Mediterranean dietary scale, Scarmeas and his team were able to evaluate the chances that a person would develop Alzheimer's.
Participants who received a score of seven, eight or nine were found to be at the lowest risk of Alzheimer's disease--39 percent to 40 percent lower than those with a score of zero. Those who scored a four, five or a six showed a 15 to 21 percent lower chance than those who scored zero. If someone adhered even slightly to the Mediterranean diet, with a score of two or three, they may have a 9 percent lower risk.
The authors also noted a slower rate of general cognitive decline in the volunteers who preferred to follow a Mediterranean diet.
Scarmeas added that people should not switch to a Mediterranean diet solely in an attempt to stave off Alzheimer's, but should consider it nonetheless, as "the other benefits, especially to the heart, are worth it."
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