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Food for the aging brain: Mediterranean diet protects cognitive health

A new study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research highlights the beneficial impact of a Mediterranean diet on the cognitive health of older adults. 

The extensive research, led by Mireia Urpí-Sardá, explores the biological mechanisms underlying the diet’s positive effects on the aging brain.

The study is part of the European “Joint Programming Initiative – A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life” (JPI HDHL) and spans twelve years. The research involved 840 participants over the age of 65, predominantly women, from the Bourdeaux and Dijon regions of France.

Dietary metabolomic index 

“Within the framework of the study, a dietary metabolomic index has been designed – based on biomarkers obtained from the participants’ serum – on the food groups that form part of the Mediterranean diet. Once this index is known, its association with cognitive impairment is evaluated,” explained study co-author Cristina Andrés-Lacueva, a professor at the University of Barcelona.

Mediterranean diet and key biomarkers 

Key biomarkers in this study include levels of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, gut microbiota-derived polyphenol metabolites, and other phytochemicals. 

Some of these indicators have been recognized as marks of exposure to the main food groups of the Mediterranean diet, and may also be responsible for the health benefits of this dietary pattern.

The biomarkers are part of a larger set called the metabolome, which is the complete set of small-molecule chemicals found within a biological sample. 

Among participants who were not suffering from cognitive decline at the start of the study, the metabolome was analyzed through serum samples.

Over the twelve-year period, cognitive impairment was evaluated using five different neuropsychological tests. 

The results revealed a clear protective link between high scores on the Mediterranean diet serum biomarker index and reduced cognitive decline in older individuals.

Significance of the Mediterranean diet

Mercè Pallàs, a professor at the UB Neurosciences Institute (UBneuro), emphasized the significance of the team’s approach.

“The use of dietary pattern indices based on food-intake biomarkers is a step forward towards the use of more accurate and objective dietary assessment methodologies that take into account important factors such as bioavailability,” said Pallàs.

“We found that adherence to Mediterranean diet assessed by a panel of dietary biomarkers is inversely associated with long-term cognitive decline in older people,” noted study lead author Alba Tor-Roca.

“These results support the use of these indicators in long-term follow-up assessments to observe the health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet or other dietary patterns and therefore, guide personalized counseling at older ages.”

Mediterranean diet 

The Mediterranean diet, inspired by the traditional eating habits of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, is renowned for its numerous health benefits, particularly in promoting heart health and reducing the risk of chronic diseases. 

This diet emphasizes the consumption of plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Olive oil is a key component, serving as the primary source of added fat, renowned for its heart-healthy properties.

Key features of the Mediterranean diet

One of the main features of the Mediterranean diet is its emphasis on fresh, whole foods and minimal processing. Fruits and vegetables are consumed in abundance, providing a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. 

Whole grains, like whole wheat, oats, barley, and brown rice, are preferred over refined grains, offering more fiber and nutrients.

Protein sources 

Protein sources in the Mediterranean diet are primarily plant-based, with legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas playing a significant role. 

Fish and seafood are also important, recommended at least twice a week, providing heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt are consumed in moderate amounts, while red meats and sweets are limited.

Mediterranean diet social aspects

Another distinctive aspect of this diet is its social and lifestyle components. Meals are often enjoyed in a communal setting, encouraging slower eating and the enjoyment of food as part of a social experience. Moderate consumption of red wine is also a feature, usually enjoyed with meals.

Overall, the Mediterranean diet is not just about food choices but also about a healthier and more holistic lifestyle, emphasizing plant-based foods, healthy fats, moderate protein from lean sources, and an enjoyable eating experience.

Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet offers a multitude of health benefits, making it one of the most recommended eating patterns by health professionals worldwide. 

Heart health

At its core, this diet is heart-healthy, significantly reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The high intake of olive oil, nuts, and fish, which are rich in healthy fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, contributes to lower cholesterol levels and improved heart health.

Weight management 

Moreover, this diet is beneficial for weight management. The emphasis on whole, nutrient-dense foods, along with healthy fats and fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, helps in maintaining a healthy weight and can aid in weight loss. 

The high fiber content also contributes to better digestive health and can help prevent constipation and other digestive issues.


Another significant advantage of the Mediterranean diet is its role in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. The diet’s low glycemic index foods help in stabilizing blood sugar levels. 


Additionally, its anti-inflammatory properties, primarily due to antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and nuts, can reduce the risk of chronic diseases linked to inflammation, including certain types of cancer.

Cognitive health

The diet also has a positive impact on cognitive health. Studies have shown that it may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, possibly due to the combination of healthy fats and high levels of antioxidants.


The Mediterranean diet promotes longevity and overall well-being. The combination of nutrient-rich foods, healthy fats, and a lifestyle that emphasizes social eating and moderate physical activity contributes to a longer and healthier life.

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