Node Smith, ND
A recent study was published in the online publication of Neurology, the American Academy of Neurology’s medical journal, that correlated people eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, nuts and fish as having bigger brains.1 It’s generally understood that eating a healthier diet increases cognitive function and many other health markers, but a lot of times the actual change in structure that diet and nutrition can facilitate is overlooked. This study shows that a change in diet actually is associated with structural changes inside the brain that increase its mass.
Improving diet may improve thinking skills in older adults
The size of a person’s brain may be important, as Meike W. Vernooij, MD, PhD explains. “People with greater brain volume have been shown in other studies to have better cognitive abilities, so initiatives to help improve diet quality may be a good strategy to maintain thinking skills in older adults.”
Details of the study
The actual study was conducted in the Netherlands, with 4,213 participants – average age of 66. None of the individuals included in the study had dementia. Data was solicited on the diet of participants by a questionnaire that asked about roughly 400 foods consumed over the previous month. Food categories considered were fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, dairy, fish, nuts, unsaturated and saturated fats, total fats, red and processed meats, sugary drinks, alcohol and salt. The quality of each participants’ diet was rated on a scale of 0-14. The best diet was considered to be high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish, dairy, and limited in sugary drink intake. In general, the average score of a participant’s diet was 7.
Brain scans conducted on all participants
Brain scans were conducted on all participants to determine brain volume, white matter lesions, and small brain hemorrhages. The average brain volume was 932 milliliters. Other factors were taken into account that could potentially affect brain health and volume – hypertension, smoking and exercise.
Findings of the study
The study found that after considering age, education, sex, smoking and exercise, that a higher diet score was linked to larger brain volume. This took into account differences in head circumference. Individuals who ate a healthier diet had, on average, 2 milliliters more brain volume, than others. It may not be a huge difference, however, it is estimated that a brain volume that is 3.6 milliliters smaller corresponds to a year of aging.
Interestingly, this study did not show that diet contributed to differences in white matter lesions or small brain hemorrhages.
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Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Portland, OR and associate editor for NDNR. He has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine among the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend camp-out where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Four years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.