Written by Alan Mozes
Health Day reporter
THURSDAY, March 2, 2023 (HealthDay News) — A Mediterranean diet may help patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) avoid deterioration in their thinking skills.
New research has shown that a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, fish and healthy fats reduced the risk of memory loss, as well as their ability to concentrate, learn new things or make decisions.
Loss of such key mental skills, or “cognitive impairment,” is a common feature of MS, a neurological disease that short-circuits critical communication between the brain and body.
However, a new analysis of the diet and mental status of 563 people with MS linked the Mediterranean diet to a 20% lower risk of cognitive difficulties.
“The Mediterranean diet is a broad concept and there are geographic variations,” said lead author Dr. Ilana Katz Sand, an associate professor of neurology at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine in New York. “However, it points to a general pattern. which favors fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, fish and whole grains and limits the consumption of meats – especially red meat – baked goods and highly processed foods.”
Previous research has suggested that the Mediterranean diet has “a wide range of health benefits,” Katz Sand added, including protection against heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and a general decline in mental health.
“In this study,” he said, “we show a significant positive association between dietary concordance with Mediterranean patterns and better cognition in people with MS.
Katz Sand emphasized that the protective association “remained strong” even after his team took into account factors that could influence mental state. These included age, sex, race, ethnicity, income, obesity, diabetes, smoking history, exercise habits, and high blood pressure.
About 7 out of 10 of the study participants were women, with an average age of 44. All completed a nutritional assessment and mental acuity or acuity screening.
About 19% of MS patients have experienced some degree of mental decline.
“When we grouped people based on their Mediterranean diet score, those in the lowest (scoring) group were much more likely to meet our criteria for cognitive impairment than those in the higher (scoring) groups,” Katz Sand said.
More research will be needed to understand why such a diet would be protective among MS patients.
One possibility: the benefit is due to “the chemical structure of the foods themselves, as well as the effect of these foods on the composition and function of the gut microbiota (meaning the bacteria living in the gut),” he suggested.
In conclusion, he noted, metabolites produced by digestion “may have far-reaching effects beyond the gut, including the ability to protect the brain from the physical and cognitive decline of MS.”
Katz Sand emphasized that the results are “observational,” reflecting the cognitive state of each participant at a given moment. In other words, the study cannot prove that the Mediterranean diet prevents progressive mental decline in MS patients.
“We are encouraged by these results, but because of the design of the study, we cannot say with certainty that if people change their diet, their cognition will be better in the future than if they did not make that change. Katz Sand said. “Before we can make recommendations that promise specific benefits for people with MS, we need well-designed intervention studies that provide a high level of evidence.”
Connie Diekman, past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who reviewed the findings, agreed that more research is needed to understand how the diet can help MS patients and whether it changes the course of the disease.
According to Diekman, the study adds to existing research and “seems to advance support for a Mediterranean-type diet” both for MS patients and “for everyone.”
The researchers published their results on March 1 at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in Boston and online, ahead of a presentation scheduled for late April. Research presented at meetings is generally considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
You can read more about MS and nutrition at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
SOURCES: Ilana Katz Sand, MD, associate professor, neurology, Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, and co-director, Corinne Goldsmith Dickinson Center for MS at Mount Sinai, New York City; Connie Diekman, MD, RD, food and nutrition consultant, St. Louis, and past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; presentation, American Academy of Neurology meeting, Boston and online, April 22-27, 2023.