The Role of Diet in Brain Health

July 9, 2018

More and more, modern medicine is recognizing the influence of diet on good health. Now, research shows that eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, and fish may result in larger total brain volumes and thereby better long-term brain health.

Q&A

More and more, modern medicine is recognizing the influence of diet on good health. Now, research shows that eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, and fish may result in larger total brain volumes and thereby better long-term brain health. Pauline Croll, MSc, lead author of a new study,1 shares some insights from their research.

Heidi Anne Duerr (HAD): Briefly explain your study and what compelled you and your team to explore diet quality and its impact on structural brain tissue volumes and focal vascular lesions in participants without dementia.

Pauline Croll (PC): In a population-based cohort study in the Netherlands, we investigated if overall diet quality has an effect on brain health. It is already known that a healthy dietary pattern is associated with a lower risk of dementia. However, we wanted to elucidate whether the mechanism underlying this relation could be found in a direct effect of diet on the structure of the brain.

HAD: What were the findings? Were there any surprises?

PC: In a sample of over 4000 participants, it appeared that better diet quality is related to larger total brain volume, which was driven by white matter volume and hippocampal volume. This suggests that the effect of a healthy dietary pattern on neurodegeneration may act via brain structure. These results highlight the potential of nutrition to influence cognition and the risk of developing dementia through brain structure. Surprisingly enough, diet quality was not related to the presence of microbleeds and lacunes and white matter lesion volume.

HAD: What advice/insights would you share with clinical neurologists? How might this information help their patients?

PC: We know that with age brain volume shrinks. Also, we know that the risk of cognitive decline increases with advancing age. Our study suggests that a healthy diet may protect the brain from decreasing any faster than it already does. In other words, unhealthy eating may accelerate brain shrinkage and as such possibly increase the risk of cognitive decline and ultimately dementia.

From a clinical point of view, it is important to enhance people’s awareness of the beneficial effects of overall diet quality on brain health. Whereas other beneficial effects of a healthy dietary pattern such as weight reduction and lowering the risk of cardio vascular disease are well-known, the effects on brain health are less known among the general population. Moreover, previous studies mostly focused on the effects of single food components such as alcohol, fish or vegetable intake. As most people will know that eating enough vegetables and fish and drinking no or moderate amounts of alcohol is beneficial for one’s health, the interactive and additive effects of overall diet quality are less known in the general population. For example, someone could eat lots of vegetables during the week, but if that person also eats many saturated fats, the beneficial effect of vegetables on physical health, and in light of this study on brain health, will disappear. Therefore, it is important that health care professionals advise their patients on their dietary pattern.

HAD: Do you plan on further studying/exploring this? If so, please explain.

PC: As we did find an association between brain health and diet quality, and it is known that diet quality is strongly correlated with body composition (weight, BMI, etc.), we plan on assessing the possible influences of body composition on brain structure. Moreover, as this study was of a cross-sectional nature, we are hoping to carry out a longitudinal analysis so we can possibly say more about the causality of diet quality on brain health rather than alone the association and maybe even look at the association between diet quality and cognitive change over time.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in our partner journal, Neurology Times, on June 16, 2018 and has since been updated.

For more on this study, see New Evidence Supports Diet-Brain Connection.

References:

1. Croll PH, Voortman T, Ikram MA, et al. Better diet quality relates to larger brain tissue volumes: The Rotterdam Study. Neurology. 2018;90:e2166-e2173.