Older adults who regularly eat foods like fish, nuts and olive oil may have less iron accumulation in their brains, as well as sharper memories, a small study suggests.
The brain requires a certain level of iron to function normally, but the aging brain can accumulate an excess amount. And that excess iron has been linked to cognitive decline — a slow deterioration in memory and thinking skills that can lead to dementia.
It’s not yet clear if the extra iron actually causes mental decline, or that limiting its buildup will stave off dementia, Valentinos Zachariou, the lead researcher on the new study says.
But diet stands as one potential way to do that, according to Zachariou.
His team found hints that certain dietary nutrients might be protective — including vitamin E and particular fatty acids found in foods like fish, nuts and olive and safflower oils.
Using MRI brain scans, the researchers found that older adults with the highest intakes of those nutrients tended to have smaller iron concentrations in their brain tissue. They also performed better, on average, on standard memory tests, versus their peers whose diets had a relative lack of those nutrients.
The findings show only correlations, and do not prove cause and effect, Zachariou stresses.
What’s needed, he says, is an “intervention” trial that directly tests the effects of a diet high in nutrients.
The study, published online recently in Neurobiology of Aging, is not the first to link diet habits to slower cognitive decline.
The classic Mediterranean diet — high in fish, olive oil, vegetables and whole grains — has been tied to sharper