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The science says it’s the truth: Mediterranean diet linked to longer life

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One of the most frequent questions that people ask me is: “Can Alzheimer’s disease be prevented?”

While there are no clear-cut answers yet, promising research is under way. Today we have enough scientific evidence suggesting that we can all take some simple steps to delay and keep Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic diseases at bay. One of the best-documented steps regards the diet we adopt and the food we regularly eat over time. I am sure that everybody is familiar with the phrase “we are what we eat.”

Diet plays a fundamental role in human health, beginning with the earliest stages of life and throughout the different ages of each human being. The diet of a mother during pregnancy is very important for the healthy development of the baby. The dietary intake of a child and an adolescent is also critical for heathy growth during that stage of life. And of course, the health of a full-grown adult, or an aging individual, is impacted by one’s dietary habits. Now, we recognize diet as a significant factor directly involved with the resilience to or the risk of developing several chronic diseases.

The Mediterranean diet is ranked as one of the most healthful diets on the planet. The name derives from the geographical region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, which among other countries includes Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Tunisia, where this diet has been adopted for centuries. It incorporates different types of food that are mostly unprocessed plant food typically found in this area: fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, extra virgin olive oil, lean proteins, and fish.

Large studies have consistently indicated that individuals who follow this diet live longer and have a lower incidence of major chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently, approximately 19 million deaths worldwide are attributable to cardiovascular diseases which include stroke, myocardial infarction, and atherosclerosis
(hardening of the artery’s wall). However, adherence to the Mediterranean dietary regime has clearly shown a strong association with significant cardiovascular protection. In fact, several large studies have indicated that individuals who follow a Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular diseases than those who follow a Western diet, which is characterized by foods such as red meat and organ meat, butter, fried and processed foods and high-sugar (sweet) foods.

On the other hand, epidemiological studies have also identified specific dietary patterns associated with the risk of cognitive impairment and the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia. For example, while the Mediterranean diet is associated with a slower decline in cognitive abilities, the Western diet adversely affects memory and cognition.

However, in the real word, although people try to consume regularly Mediterranean diet components like fi sh, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains more often, they may also consume at the same time, or intermittently, mix food items that are characteristic of a Western diet such as refi ned grains, processed food, fried chicken/fish, or sweet foods for a few other meals during the week.

Will the Mediterranean diet in this case be enough to mitigate the negative effects of the Western diet on memory?

The simple answer is “no.” Based on a study published recently, the beneficial effects on memory ability of following the Mediterranean diet is dramatically attenuated by the ingestion of foods that are normally part of a Western diet.

In conclusion, adopting a Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle change. Its benefits are evident mostly in individuals who adhere to it over a long period of time and not just for two or three months. However, it is never too late to start implementing this specific dietary, lifestyle approach.

Importantly, the Mediterranean diet also has benefits beyond reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer’s disease. It has been shown to positively influence gut health and promote overall healthy aging. Finally, let’s not forget that all the benefi cial effects of adopting a Mediterranean dietary lifestyle are equally evident in males and females.

Dr. Domenico Pratico is the director of the Alzheimer’s Center at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia.

Dr. Domenico Pratico

Dr. Domenico Pratico is the director of the Alzheimer’s Center at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia.

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