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Olive oil boosts the ageing brain

22nd May 2012

Researchers in the United States say they have new evidence to suggest saturated fats, like those found in butter and red meat, are associated with declining brain function as a person ages, while monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocado can slow down cognitive decline.

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The research team at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, say their recent findings on the effects of different sorts of fats in the diet upholds current medical thinking that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.

Butter may make us more stupid, while olive oil could boost our cognitive performance.

The research comes amid growing evidence of the impact of diet on brain functioning. Saturated fats are believed to promote inflammatory processes in the body, which have been linked to a number of chronic diseases, and damage to the arteries.

Women who consumed the highest amounts of saturated fat - which are animal fats like the fat from red meat and butter or cheese, had worse overall cognitive function and memory following a four-year test period than the women who ate the most monounsaturated fats, like olive oil.

They concluded that saturated fats can undermine cognitive function, including short and long-term memory as a person ages.

According to study author Olivia Okereke, a psychiatrist and epidemiologist at the Brigham, the women whose diets contained the highest proportion of monounsaturated fat had brains that were about 6 or 7 years younger than the women who ate more saturated fats.

She said that the dietary fats that are beneficial for cardiovascular health seem to be similarly beneficial for brain health. However, total fat intake did not appear to have an effect on brain ageing, nor did polyunsaturated fats like those used in some margarines.

And trans fats - which have been banned in some parts of the United States because of their harmful effect on heart health - were not linked with brain decline in this study, although they have been linked with faster cognitive decline in previous studies.

This discrepancy could be due to the fact that the study participants, 6,000 women over the age of 65 who had enrolled in the Women's Health Study, all reported a relatively low trans fat intake.

Their cognitive function was measured with tests of attention, list learning, evaluating short and long-term memory and so-called category fluency, in which subjects are asked to list as many animals as possible in one minute.

In order to get an overall picture of cognitive function, the results of all the tests were combined.

While the precise mechanism that connects saturated fat consumption with brain function requires further study, Okureke said the harmful effect of saturated fats on brain health could be linked to inflammation or a change in a person's lipid profiles.

The research was published online in the Annals of Neurology, and may have significant public health implications.

They are also fairly easy to apply in people's lives. Okereke suggested that people substitute their usual portions of saturated fats, replacing them with the same amounts of monounsaturated fats. This could be achieved with a simple switch from butter to olive oil, she said.

The maintenance of cognitive functioning as a person ages is important, because earlier research has suggested that even a slight decline in cognitive functioning can lead to a higher risk of developing more serious problems like full-blown dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.


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