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What’s so special about the Mediterranean diet? by Dr. Smita Patel

AARP image Feb 2019


You’ve probably heard that eating a Mediterranean-pattern diet is good for you. It’s good for cardiovascular health, good for avoiding diabetes, good for the health of your gut, good for longevity, and that it’s protective against dementia. Let’s take a look at why.


Observational research tells us that older adults who eat the most “Mediterranean” compared to the least are equivalent to being 7.5 years younger on average in terms of health and cognition. We also know from observational research that people eating Mediterranean diets have increased brain volume, significantly fewer cognitive complaints, decreased risk for dementia and delay of dementia onset.

In a randomized-controlled trial, the subjects randomized to the Mediterranean diet pattern compared to a low-fat diet improved in cognition over four years as opposed to experiencing the age-related cognitive decline that is expected. In other words, they experienced better cognition at age 72 compared to when they started the trial at age 68.


How does this diet pattern work to improve our health and cognition? It likely has much to do with lowering cellular damage from inflammation and oxidative stress. Randomized trials have shown us that eating a Mediterranean diet lowers oxidized low-density lipoprotein, the “bad” cholesterol that when oxidized leads to hardening of the arteries. An interesting body of research called “nutrigenomics” or how what we eat changes expression of our genes, shows that the antioxidants in foods following the Mediterranean diet, chiefly the polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil and red wine, “switch-off” the expression of pro-inflammatory and pro-oxidation genes. Less inflammation and oxidative stress protects our guts, our hearts and our brains as well as the body in general.

Making adjustments

How can you eat this way? Try incorporating a few adjustments in your diet each week. After a month or two, you’ll be well on your way to improving your brain health.


  1. Fill your plate with a wide variety of vegetables, grains and legumes.
  2. Aim for 2-3 servings of fruit per day
  3. Consume fish three times per week, and choose lean poultry over red meat
  4. If you drink alcohol, switch to red wine (one 5 oz glass per day for women, 2 for men)
  5. Use refined olive oil for high-heat cooking and extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling over food and in sauces and soups. And don’t skimp on that olive oil either. Experts suggest consuming 2-4 tablespoons per day as part of a truly Mediterranean diet. Of course, consuming a diet focused on healthy choices is one part of maintaining and even improving your brain health. For a comprehensive approach, be sure to consult your brain health physician.


About the Author:

Smita Patel, DO, is a neurologist at NorthShore Neurological Institute and Director of the Center for Brain Health. Dr. Patel brings expertise in neurology and sleep along with complementary and integrative medicine to develop tailored health plans for her patients. She is board certified in neurology, sleep medicine and integrative medicine. Dr. Patel has participated in clinical research studies in the area of sleep medicine and has written book chapters for several academic publications on neurological disorders. She has a strong interest in researching the cause and treatment of neurological diseases as well as supporting and participating in educational programs. Dr. Patel directs a comprehensive team at the Center for Brain Health, and works with patients to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders, and to improve brain health. For more information, visit


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