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Changing your diet could slow the effects of ageing on the brain, according to a new study at the University of Edinburgh. The research, led by doctor Janie Corley, examined a group of 500 people aged 79 who exhibited no signs of dementia. They reported details of their diets, underwent cognitive tests and many of them agreed to undergo MRI brain scans to examine the structure of their brains. Consuming leafy greens and cutting out red meat have been correlated to better cognitive performance in old age.
Information was also collected on other factors that may impact brain health, such as a history of smoking.
The correlation remained even after accounting for these other variables, but the overall impact was small.
An unexpected result was that the difference found in the cognitive tests could not be identified from comparing the MRI scans.
The benefits to cognition could be due to the anti-inflammatory effect of the diet.
Doctor Corley 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.”
The research has verified a correlation between diet and cognitive health but has not identified a causal relation between the two.
Foods with pro-inflammatory properties were found to have a negative impact on performance in cognitive tests.
This includes highly processed foods containing salt and sugar, alongside red meat.
These foods are often associated with worse cardiovascular health, with salt especially having the effect of increasing blood pressure.
Previous studies have linked many of the risk factors of cardiovascular health to dementia with cardiovascular health impacting blood flow to the brain.
The study examined a group called the Lothian Birth Cohort. This is a collection of over a thousand people born in 1936, who have agreed to regular cognitive and health testing.
Many members of the group have agreed to donate the brain tissue to further the research project in the event of their death.
The data collected from the group has been used in ageing research around the world.
“The Lothian Birth Cohorts are unusual and extremely valuable groups of participants who permit us to understand the association between early life experiences and late life outcomes of health and disease” said Professor Sudha Seshadri, director of the Glenn Biggs institute for Alzheimers and Neurodegenerative diseases at the University of Texas.
“Their generous gift of their time and information, and the superb team at Edinburgh that has been able to leverage these data expertly and creatively has resulted in many new insights into brain aging in health and disease.”
One of the primary goals of the Lothian Birth Cohorts is to examine how the behaviours of its participants can be translated into advice on how regular people can protect their mental faculties heading into old age.
Cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia are expected to impact an increasing number of people as medical technology and improved nutrition increase our life expectancies.
Alzheimer’s Research UK predicts that the number of people with dementia is going to increase by 204 percent from 2018 to 2050.
The healthcare and social costs of dementia exceed the combined spending on both cancer and chronic heart disease.
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