The Mediterranean diet — an eating pattern that emphasizes vegetables, whole grains, fish and other lean sources of protein, and olive oil — is having something of a moment right now, particularly when it comes to benefits in the area of cognitive health. As we reported just a few days ago, a new study shows that this diet may lower the risk of cognitive impairment by as much as half in older adults. This study was originally designed to learn about the effects of following a Mediterranean diet on developing eye problems like age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts, and wasn’t specific to people with diabetes.
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But another recent study was designed to look specifically at the issue of cognitive performance in people with diabetes, and showed promising results. Published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, the study compared the effects of following a Mediterranean diet in people with newly diagnosed type 1 or type 2 diabetes, people with either type of diabetes for five years or longer, and people without diabetes.
Participants completed a food frequency questionnaire to determine where they fell on a measure called the Modified Mediterranean Diet Scale (MMDS). They also underwent cognitive testing that covered a number of areas of mental performance.
The researchers found that in participants with long-term type 2 diabetes, a higher degree of following a Mediterranean diet was tied to a higher verbal memory score in cognitive tests. This relationship wasn’t seen in people with recently diagnosed type 2 diabetes, or in people with type 1 diabetes or without diabetes.
“Individuals following a [Mediterranean diet] particularly feature improvements in single cognitive domains” in previous studies, like memory or verbal fluency, the authors of the new study explain. But previous studies have shown mixed results on cognitive performance in people with diabetes, with some finding benefits only in people without diabetes. The goal of this study was to shed more light on how this dietary pattern affects different groups of people with diabetes.
While the reasons why a Mediterranean diet may help improve cognitive performance in some people aren’t completely clear, the researchers write that “the high content of antioxidants in [a Mediterranean diet] may contribute to better cognitive performance by reducing the production of reactive oxygen species and attenuating inflammatory processes.” Reducing inflammation in the body may also have a variety of other health benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
One limitation of this study, the researchers write, is that it doesn’t take into account the glycemic loads of different foods that participants reported eating — in other words, how individual foods may contribute to elevated blood glucose levels, even within the confines of a Mediterranean diet. Previous studies have found that the cognitive benefits of following a Mediterranean diet may be dependent on good blood glucose control, so the effect of individual foods on blood glucose control may also be a factor worth studying.