Healthy diets and weight loss may help reduce brain aging

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Could Mediterranean diets help maintain brain health by promoting a healthy weight? Image credit: Alba Vitta/Stocksy
  • B​rain health is a critical component of health and well-being. The brain aging faster than the rest of the body may be linked to several conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
  • A​ study found that weight reduction may help improve brain aging. Specific dietary interventions, including the Mediterranean diet and the green Mediterranean diet, benefited the study’s participants.
  • People interested in helpful dietary interventions can seek help from appropriate nutrition specialists.

The brain’s aging can have significant clinical implications. Researchers are still seeking to understand how brain aging impacts health and how lifestyle interventions can slow brain aging.

A​ study published in eLife looked at how weight loss may help to slow brain aging.

Researchers looked at three diets among individuals with obesity:

Researchers found that weight reduction among participants was associated with slower rates of brain aging. The results indicate the importance of maintaining a healthy weight and the impact of this on brain age.

The brain is a critical organ of the body, so its well-being is essential to how well the rest of the body functions. Age affects brain functioning, leading to certain natural declines.

However, lifestyle interventions can help with brain health and functioning. Some research supports that eating a healthy diet and being physically active can help brain function.

Dr. Brett Osborn, a board-certified neurosurgeon, physician, and president and Founder of the medical weight loss clinic Senolytix, not involved in the study explained to Medical News Today:

“The term ‘brain aging’ refers to the natural process of changes that occur in the brain as a person grows older. It is a normal part of the aging process and is characterized by a gradual decline in various cognitive functions. The brain, no different than any other organ at base level, is susceptible to free radical (oxidative) damage and thereby aging. As damage accumulates, and this occurs at variable rates depending upon a host of mostly environmental factors, cognitive function falters and the risk of neurologic disorders increases.”

Researchers of the current study explain that estimating someone’s brain age involves comparing one person’s brain to the brains of a healthy control group.

Brain age older than chronological age is associated with several conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, and even a higher mortality rate.

Researchers are still seeking to understand how lifestyle interventions can slow brain aging.

In this study, researchers wanted to look at how weight loss impacted brain aging. Researchers included 102 participants with obesity. Participants were part of the Dietary Intervention Randomized Controlled Trial Polyphenols Unprocessed Study trial.

All participants engaged in physical activity and followed one of three specific diets: a diet following healthy dietary guidelines, the Mediterranean diet, or a green Mediterranean diet. The lifestyle interventions lasted for 18 months.

The green Mediterranean diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes many plant-based food sources and moderate amounts of animal proteins.

Unlike more traditional versions of the Mediterranean diet, the green Mediterranean diet contains even more plant-based foods, as well as green tea and the aquatic plant Wolffia globosa or Mankai, also known as “duckweed.”

Kailey Proctor, a board-certified registered dietitian with the City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center in Irvine, CA, explained that: “The green Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based proteins and eliminates red meats and processed meats. Think of it as a ‘vegetarian light’ type of diet.”

In the current study, researchers found that weight loss was associated with slower rates of brain aging. They also found that consuming fewer processed foods and sweets was associated with reduced brain aging.

Study lead author Dr. Gidon Levakov, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, explained the study’s key findings to MNT.

“Our research revealed several key findings. First, we observed that a lifestyle intervention in individuals with obesity resulted in a reduction in brain aging,” he told us.

“Specifically, we found that a 1% reduction in body weight led to the participants’ brains appearing nearly 9 months younger than expected after 18 months. Additionally, these improvements in brain aging were associated with positive changes in other biological measures, such as decreased liver fat and liver enzymes,” Dr. Levakov noted.

The results indicate that weight loss interventions may provide certain individuals with cognitive and physical benefits. Dr. Osborn further commented with his thoughts on the study’s findings:

“The study’s findings come as no surprise, as the brain – and all other tissues – undergo accelerated aging in the context of high levels of bodily inflammation, pathognomonic of the obese body type. This is one of the many reasons why nearly all age-related diseases (i.e., cancer, diabetes, coronary artery disease and Alzheimer’s Disease) occur at a much higher incidence in the obese population.”

The study also has some key limitations. Firstly, it cannot prove that weight loss or following a specific diet directly causes improved brain aging.

Secondly, the study only included a small number of participants, with an uneven number of men and women, making it risky to generalize the results. Researchers also had to rely on self-reporting on diet from participants, which can increase the risk of certain inaccuracies.

The study looked at a specific sub-population that included individuals with obesity and abnormal lipid levels. Therefore, the findings do not necessarily reflect how the intervention would help the general population.

The study also lacked a control group, which limits the study’s findings. Future studies can include more diverse samples with a longer follow-up timeframe.

Dr. Levakov noted that:

“Exploring the long-term effects of lifestyle interventions on brain aging and investigating the specific components of these interventions that contribute most significantly to the observed improvements are important avenues for future research. Furthermore, the generalizability of our findings should be assessed by studying individuals with different levels of obesity and diverse populations.”

The research indicated that specific diets, including the green Mediterranean diet, may be particularly beneficial to brain aging and health.

However, Dr. Levakov pointed out: “We found a beneficial effect of weight loss on brain age attenuation regardless of the intervention group. Hence, our finding cannot determine whether one diet type was superior to the others.”

Nevertheless, the study authors note that previous research has linked following a Mediterranean diet with increased levels of gray matter in the brain and improvements in cardiometabolic health.

Some people may benefit from a Mediterranean or green Mediterranean diet. Proctor offered the following guidance to MNT:

“The plant-based foods in a green Mediterranean diet were selected because they are rich in healthful polyphenols and include many that you may already eat and enjoy, like green tea and walnuts […] The essentials of the green Mediterranean diet are being mindful about balancing plant proteins and animal proteins, eliminating red meat and processed meat, and limiting daily calorie intake. Your physician or registered dietitian nutritionist can help you understand the benefits, the restrictions, and how to get started.”

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