extra-virgin olive oil extra-virgin olive oil Extra-virgin olive oil is associated with memory preservation and prevention of dementia. (Photo: GAMARUBA/Shutterstock)

This ingredient is more than trendy – it could also ward off Alzheimer's

New research adds yet another rung to the Mediterranean diet's long list of benefits.

There's a lot to love about the Mediterranean diet. It's rich in all the things you already know are good for you but that you probably don't get enough of in traditional Western diets: fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, lean proteins like fish, olive oil, red wine. And it's been associated with numerous health benefits, from preventing cancer to reducing inflammation.

In a new study, scientists have gifted us one more reason to love this diet: its abundance of extra-virgin olive oil, when paired with the generous portions of fruits and vegetables grown in and around countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, has been found to preserve memory and protect the brain against Alzheimer's disease.

That, after all, is the crux of the Mediterranean diet. The citizens of those countries – Greece, Italy, Israel and France, for example – have longer life spans and fewer incidences of cancers and heart-related ailments.

"The thinking is that extra-virgin olive oil is better than fruits and vegetables alone, and as a monounsaturated vegetable fat it is healthier than saturated animal fats," according to Dr. Domenico Praticò, a professor in the Departments of Pharmacology and Microbiology at Temple University in Philadelphia and a senior investigator of the study.

In a study published in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology, the researchers show that the consumption of extra-virgin olive oil reduces the formation of amyloid-beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. Neurofibrillary tangles are suspected of contributing to the nerve cell dysfunction in the brain that is responsible for Alzheimer's memory symptoms.

caprese saladThe Mediterranean diet celebrates fresh vegetables and healthy fats for a natural, sustainable lifestyle. (Photo: Marian Weyo/Shutterstock)

The study was conducted on mice, using a common model to simulate the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and introducing olive oil in their diets at six months old. Within a few months, the mice on the extra virgin olive oil-enriched diet performed significantly better than the control group on tests designed to evaluate working memory, spatial memory and learning abilities.

"This is an exciting finding for us," Praticò said.

The next step, he said, is to investigate the effects of introducing extra-virgin olive oil into the diet of the same mice at 12 months of age, when they have already developed plaques and tangles. "Usually when a patient sees a doctor for suspected symptoms of dementia, the disease is already present," Dr. Praticò added. "We want to know whether olive oil added at a later time point in the diet can stop or reverse the disease."

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