Eating healthily could ward off dementia and make your brain more than six months younger.
Researchers say people who eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts and fish have bigger brains.
The findings are the latest evidence that ‘what is good for the heart is good for the head’.
A healthy diet, long known to protect people from heart problems, was found to add to brain volume, boosting people’s grey matter and the volume of their hippocampus – the brain’s memory centre. Across more than 4,000 people aged 45 and older, eating well was found to give people an average extra brain volume of two millilitres.
That is the equivalent of a brain being more than six months younger, as it shrinks with age. Having a larger brain is thought to ward off memory loss, which can often be followed by dementia.
Dr Meike Vernooij, co-author of the Dutch study from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, said: ‘People with greater brain volume have been shown to have better cognitive abilities, so initiatives that help improve diet may be a good strategy to maintain thinking skills in older adults.’
He called for more research to ‘examine the pathways through which diet can affect the brain’. A healthy diet is believed to strengthen connections in the brain and ward off inevitable age-related decline.
The latest study, which was published in the journal Neurology, involved people with an average age of 66 who were dementia-free. They were questioned on their diet, which was ranked with a score of zero to 14. The best were judged high in vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, dairy and fish.
Participants then had MRI scans to determine their brain volume. Even taking into account brain-shrinking activities such as smoking and failing to exercise, those who ate well had an average of two millilitres more brain volume than those who did not.
Dr Sara Imarisio, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said brain size was a useful indicator of brain health but the study did not allow any ‘firm conclusions’ about how diet quality relates to the development of dementia.
But she added: ‘Research suggests a healthy diet may help to reduce the risk of dementia, and Alzheimer’s Research is supporting pioneering research into ways we can encourage people at risk to adopt a Mediterranean diet.’