Mediterranean diet associated with big reduction in the risk of heart disease and dementia

Further scientific evidence of the benefits of a “Mediterranean diet” on health have been published this week, extolling the virtues of fruit, veggies, nuts and even a little wine.

In one Australian-led review researchers found women who closely followed a Mediterranean diet were associated with up to 24% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and up to 23% lower risk of death from any cause.

This is the first study to examine the association between the Mediterranean diet, cardiovascular disease, and mortality in women specifically, and is published in the journal Heart.

A UK study in BMC Medicine has also found that men and women with a strict Mediterranean diet had up to 23% lower risk for developing dementia in comparison with those with the lowest level of adherence to the diet.

The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, and olive oil; moderate in fish and shellfish; low to moderate in wine; and low in red meat and processed meats, dairy products, animal fat, and processed foods.

Read more: All the juicy details: How healthy are plant-based meats?

Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term that includes heart, stroke, and blood vessel diseases, and was the underlying cause of one in four deaths in Australia in 2019.

“The Mediterranean diet is known for its health benefits, especially for heart health, but most studies and research into diet and heart disease are done primarily in men,” says Anushriya Pant, University of Sydney PhD candidate at the Westmead Applied Research Centre (WARC) and first author of the Heart paper.

The study analysed pooled data from 16 studies published between 2006 and 2021, involving over 722,000 female participants aged 18 and above who followed the Mediterranean diet and whose cardiovascular health was monitored for an average of 12.5 years.

The researchers found that the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and death applied to women of all ethnicities..

“Now we have confirmed that similar benefits apply for women’s dietary guidelines, and this reflects the strength of the Mediterranean diet for good heart health,” adds Pant.

“In medical research, there are sex disparities in how clinical trials are designed. This creates large gaps in clinical data, which can potentially impact the development of health advice. Our work is a step towards addressing this gap.”

The researchers acknowledge some limitations to their findings. All studies analysed were observational – so could only establish an association, not causation, between the Mediterranean diet and lowered risk of cardiovascular disease and death – and relied on self-reported food frequency questionnaires. Adjustments for potentially influencing factors also varied across the studies.

The second study into dementia is equally supportive of the diet guidelines.

UK scientists analysed data from 60,298 individuals from the UK Biobank – a large-scale biomedical database containing genetic and health information from half a million UK participants – who completed a dietary assessment.

Participants were followed for nine years, during which there were 882 cases of dementia.

The researchers scored individuals based on how closely their diet matched the key features of a Mediterranean one, while taking into account their genetic risk for dementia.

The authors say the findings indicate that, even for those with a higher genetic risk for dementia, having a better diet could reduce the likelihood of developing the condition.

“Dementia impacts the lives of millions of individuals throughout the world, and there are currently limited options for treating this condition,” says Dr Oliver Shannon, a lecturer in Human Nutrition and Ageing at Newcastle University, and first author of the study.

 “Finding ways to reduce our risk of developing dementia is, therefore, a major priority for researchers and clinicians.

 “Our study suggests that eating a more Mediterranean-like diet could be one strategy to help individuals lower their risk of dementia.”

The authors caution that there are limitations to this study, including that their analysis is limited to individuals who self-reported their ethnic background as white, British, or Irish, as only genetic data based on European ancestry was available.

Further research is needed in a range of populations to determine the potential benefit for all people.

In 2022, it was estimated that there were 401,300 Australians living with dementia. With an ageing and growing population this number is predicted to more than double to 849,300 people by 2058.

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