Researchers found that people who more closely followed the Mediterranean diet – which includes a high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruits, fish; healthy fats, such as olive oil; and a low intake of dairy products, meats, and saturated fatty acids – had a 20% lower risk of cognitive impairment than those who did not follow the diet.
“It’s exciting to see that we may be able to help people living with MS maintain better cognition by eating a Mediterranean diet,” said study author Ilana Katz Sand, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “Cognitive difficulties are very common in MS, and they often get worse over time, even with treatment with disease-modifying therapies.
“People living with MS are very interested in ways they can be proactive from a lifestyle perspective to help improve their outcomes.”
Mediterranean diet has anti-inflammatory potential
MS, a complex neurological condition for which currently there is no cure, is one of the most common long-term diseases affecting the central nervous system. It is an unpredictable condition that affects different people in various ways. Common symptoms include pain, fatigue, reduced mobility, and cognitive dysfunction.
Previous findings suggest that the polyphenol-rich Mediterranean diet may be beneficial for reducing MS symptoms and fatigue severity due to its anti-inflammatory components; however, research is limited.
This study involved 563 people with MS. Participants completed a questionnaire to show how closely they followed the Mediterranean diet and were assigned a score based on their responses.
They were then divided into four groups based on their scores, before taking three tests to assess their thinking and memory skills. Cognitive impairment was defined as scoring less than the fifth percentile on two or three of the tests.
A total of 108 people, or 19%, had cognitive impairment.
Among those in the group with the lowest diet score, 43 of 133 people – or 34% – had cognitive impairment, compared with 13 of 103 people – or 13% – of people in the group with the highest score.
The findings are due to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 75th Annual Meeting, which is being held in Boston, Massachusetts, from April 22-27.
Effect stronger among those with progressive MS
The relationship was stronger among people with progressive MS, in which the condition steadily worsens, than among those with relapsing-remitting MS, where it flares up before going into periods of remission.
Katz Sand noted that longitudinal studies and interventional clinical trials were needed to confirm the results, adding that one limitation of the research was that tests were taken only once.
However, she highlighted that the results remained the same when researchers adjusted for other factors that could influence cognitive impairment, such as socioeconomic status, smoking, body mass index, high blood pressure, and exercise.
“Among health-related factors, the level of dietary alignment with the Mediterranean pattern was by far the strongest predictor of people’s cognitive scores and whether they met the study criteria for cognitive impairment,” she said.