People Who Eat Healthy in Midlife Have a Larger Brain Volume, Study Finds

People often begin paying more attention to what they eat as they reach middle age. Doing so can help keep weight in check, boost energy levels, and stave off certain diseases. New research out of Australia finds that refining your diet in midlife may have another benefit: a larger brain volume, which could, in turn, lower dementia risk.

Researchers at Deakin University examined the link between dietary habits and brain volume in thousands of people in middle age. Their study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found that those who ate a diet filled with a variety of healthy foods like vegetables and good oils had more grey matter and a larger brain volume than those with less healthy diets. The team says this finding suggests that a commitment to a good diet at an earlier age can protect our brain health as we age.

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Lead author Dr. Helen Macpherson explains, “There is no blood test that can detect dementia during midlife, but brain volume is an important indicator of brain health. Brain volume begins to decrease, relative to head size, from midlife into old age and we know increased brain shrinkage can precede dementia.

“This research tells us that diet quality needs to be addressed well before old age so that people can give themselves the best chance of reducing dementia risk.”

To look for the link between midlife diet and brain health, Dr. Macpherson’s team used data from nearly 20,000 patients between the ages of 40 and 65 in the UK Biobank database, which contains the genetic and health information of half a million people. The participants in Macpherson’s study completed diet recall analysis focused on three measures of diet quality, and they underwent MRIs to gauge their brain volume.

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The researchers focused on adherence to the Mediterranean diet, which has known health benefits and encourages people to eat whole grains and fish while limiting red meat. While this diet was linked with more grey matter, so was any diet that adhered to recommendations from the World Health Organization.

Dr. Macpherson says, “We also looked at how well people’s diets match dietary guidelines, including from the World Health Organisation, which recommend eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, grains, low fat dairy, lean meat or its alternatives, while avoiding processed or junk food.”

One interesting finding was that the brain health benefits seemed to be more pronounced in men, which researchers say warrants further study.

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Dr. Macpherson says the main takeaway should be that people in midlife may want to start following dietary recommendations similar to the WHO’s to protect against neurodegeneration as they age.

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