MONDAY, Feb. 13, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Eating a Mediterranean-style diet appears to reduce damage to small blood vessels in the brain, a new study says.
Researchers tracked the brain health of almost a thousand people who completed a questionnaire that scored how closely they followed a Mediterranean-type regimen. This diet emphasizes plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, and using olive oil rather than fats like butter, according to the American Heart Association. The diet discourages eating red meat more than a few times a month, if at all, and advises taking in moderate amounts of fish and poultry. Red wine, in moderation, is optional.
The researchers found that about 27 percent of the participants scored relatively low (ranging from 0-3 on a 10-point scale) in terms of keeping to this type of diet, while about 26 percent scored relatively high, from 6 to 9 points.
The people enrolled in the study also underwent brain MRI scans to measure "white matter hyperintensity" volume, which is a marker of small vessel damage in the brain.
The brain scans revealed a lower burden of white matter hyperintensities in people with higher Mediterranean-diet scores, even after researchers took other risk factors like smoking, high blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels into account.
"The current study suggests a possible protective association between increased consumption of a [Mediterranean diet] and small vessel damage," wrote the researchers, who were led by Hannah Gardener, of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
The new research appears in the February issue of the journal Archives of Neurology.
One expert said the study supports the notion that a healthy diet helps the brain.
"The study supports recommending the Mediterranean diet to help reduce cerebrovascular disease as measured by small vessel changes seen on brain MRI scans," said Dr. Keith Siller, an assistant professor in the departments of neurology and psychiatry and medical director of the Comprehensive Stroke Care Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City.
He also noted that "the benefits of the diet appear to be separate from previously assumed secondary effects on lowering blood pressure, cholesterol or glucose levels, although there was a possible connection with emphasis on monounsaturated fats in the Mediterranean diet in the form of olive oil versus consumption of saturated fats in other diet types."
Indeed, the authors' own analysis suggests that the only component of the Mediterranean diet that was independently associated with the marker for brain-vessel damage was the ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fat.
But they concluded it was likelier that the overall diet -- rather than any specific nutrients -- might somehow affect the brain.
Another expert agreed that lifestyle, including diet, is key to brain health.
"This just adds to the building body of evidence of the power of lifestyle changes, especially the Mediterranean diet, in disease modification and prevention, " said Dr. Robert Graham, an internist at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City.
Previous research has suggested that eating a Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome, coronary heart disease, stroke and thought and memory disorders.
The American Heart Association has more about the Mediterranean diet.