Switching to a diet high in fresh vegetables and low in processed foods could do wonders for your biological brain age, according to new research.
According to the international team of researchers who conducted the study, a Mediterranean diet high in vegetables, seafood and whole grains appears to slow the signs of accelerated brain aging typically seen in obesity with as little as 1% loss of body weight.
Brain scans taken after 18 months showed that the participants’ brain age appeared almost 9 months younger than expected, compared to estimates of their chronological brain age.
Like the clinical trial participants, you may not feel as old as the years you’ve lived, or maybe you feel like your body is aging faster than you are – that’s the difference between biological age and chronological age.
Either way, research shows that your body’s biological age is much more than a feeling: signs of biological aging can be found along your DNA, etched on the ends of your chromosomes or, as this study suggests, in the loose connections of your brain.
While a growing body of research suggests that biological aging caused by stressful events may be reversible, this new study shows that improving your diet may be one of the easiest options for improving fitness, regardless of whatever the years.
In the study, researchers imaged the brains of 102 participants who were taking part in a larger clinical trial conducted at a workplace in Israel. Brain scans were taken once before the start of the trial and again after 18 months, along with a battery of tests for liver function, cholesterol levels and body weight.
The groups followed one of three diets: a Mediterranean diet with lots of nuts, fish and chicken instead of red meat; a Mediterranean diet with a few extras like green tea for polyphenols; or a diet based on healthy dietary guidelines.
The brain age estimates were based on an algorithm that had been trained on brain scans of a separate cohort of nearly 300 people, with the model accurately predicting age from measures of brain connectivity.
On average, people taking part in the trial lost about 2.3 kilograms. For every 1% of body weight lost, participants’ brains appeared to be almost 9 months younger than their chronological age, the researchers found.
Whether changes in brain connectivity actually translate to improvements in brain function is still a big unknown. The brain is a complex network of flexible connections that we are only just beginning to map, although a recent study suggests that the Mediterranean diet has a positive effect on memory in older people.
Signs of slowed brain aging were also associated with lower levels of liver fat and an improved lipid profile, but again these changes could be superficial or short-lived.
“Our study highlights the importance of a healthy lifestyle, including reduced consumption of processed foods, sweets, and beverages, in maintaining brain health,” says lead author and neuroscientist Gidon Levakov. from Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
That might be good advice and while these results come from a clinical trial where participants were randomly “prescribed” a diet to follow, there are a few other limitations worth digesting.
Most of the participants were men and they completed online surveys about their diets and lifestyles, which means the data may be skewed by what they remember or choose to report.
And it’s not just about food: Work participants’ activity levels were taken into account; they also received a free gym membership as part of the trial, so exercise was also a factor.
Additionally, previous research has revealed how the good fats in a Mediterranean diet work at the cellular level. But it also revealed clear discrepancies in who reaps the health benefits of a diet rich in Mediterranean staples.
People with well-paying jobs and higher education who could afford to buy lots of fish and whole grains saw their heart health improve more than those with lower incomes — even though their diet adherence was the same.
The study was published in eLife.
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