Alzheimer’s Prevention:The Case for Olive Oil and a Mediterranean Diet

An Artcile By Dana Larsen in "A Place for Mom"

New research from the University of Louisiana’s College of Pharmacy found that extra virgin olive oil may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease prevention. A protective agent, called “oleocanthal,” is believed to have effects that protect nerve cells from the kind of damage that occurs in Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Another recent study by St. Louis University also linked olive oil to improved cognition and decreased memory loss. The evidence for olive oil, a staple of the traditional  Mediterranean diet, as a secret weapon against Alzheimer’s disease continues to climb.
Olive Oil Linked to Alzheimer's Prevention
I spent my honeymoon backpacking in Greece and never felt healthier. The sunshine, picturesque landscapes, constant walking and tasty Mediterranean cuisine which is low in red meat and processed foods and high in fruit, vegetables and olive oil, all contributed to my bliss, I’m sure. In February 2013, the The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a long-term study that positively linked prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet that includes extra-virgin olive oil. Along with the latest research from the University of Louisiana’s College of Pharmacy pointing to the potential of olive oil as neuroprotective mechanism against Alzheimer’s Disease—I wonder if the extra virgin olive oil had something to do with my sense of well-being?
While I’m fairly young and not at-risk for developing dementia any time soon, it does run in my family. In fact, I watch on a daily basis the transformation Alzheimer’s has had on my beloved grandmother. The accumulation of the beta-amyloid (Aβ) in the brain—believed to be the culprit in AD—can start at a young age. I, for one, plan on adding more olive oil to my diet. Want to know why? Read about these fascinating studies below.

Lower Prevalence of Alzheimer’s and Dementia in Mediterranean Countries

Amal Kaddourni and his colleagues at the University of Louisiana noted in their study that AD affects around 30 million people worldwide. However, those in Mediterranean countries seem less afflicted by the debilitating disease. Again, with all the variables in these types of studies, sometimes pinpointing a correlation between a region less prone to a disease can be challenging. But after careful investigation tracking the effects of oleocanthal in the brains and cultured brain cells of laboratory mice, the researchers showed the protective agent showed a consistent pattern in boosting not only the production of two proteins in removing the (Aβ) from the brain, but also the production of helpful enzymes.

Features of a Traditional Mediterranean Diet

  • Low in red meat
  • Low in sugar
  • Low in processed carbohydrates
  • Moderate intake of fish and eggs
  • Moderate intake of low-fat dairy
  • High in extra-virgin olive oil
  • High in vegetables
  • High in fruits
  • High in lentils and other legumes
  • Wine with meals in moderation

Olive Oil May Reduce Memory Loss

An animal study involving mice at St. Louis University found that olive oil has properties that can help reduce memory loss and improve thinking. Extra virgin olive oil is actually the first oil pressed from olives, which makes it particularly healthy because it holds on to rich antioxidants called polyphenols—believed to enhance the brain’s performance. One of the lead researchers, Susan Farr, Ph.D., research professor of geriatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, divided mice suffering from age-related deficiencies, such as Alzheimer’s, into groups given different types of fat:
  1. Extra virgin olive oil
  2. Coconut oil
  3. Butter
The mice took tests of recognizing objects and navigating a maze that indicate memory and learning over a 4-week time frame. Levels of oxidative stress in the mouses’ brains were also assessed. The clear winners were the mice given the extra virgin olive oil as they were able to navigate the mazes and showed they had the most improved learning, thinking and memory. According to Farr, “Our research with mice lends credibility to the idea that extra virgin olive oil is really good for you and could even help if you already have some mild dementia. The take home message is to use extra virgin olive oil in your cooking.”

Sound Mind and Body: Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention

The University of Louisiana’s study report concludes: “Extra-virgin olive oil-derived oleocanthal associated with the consumption of Mediterranean diet has the potential to reduce the risk of AD or related neuro-degenerative dementias.” Health benefits of olive oil and the Mediterranean diet include:
  1. Decreasing levels of “bad” cholesterol
  2. Lowering blood pressure
  3. Decreasing cancer risk
  4. Decreasing cardiovascular disease risk
  5. Decreasing stroke risk
  6. Protection from oxidative damage
  7. Improving cognitive function


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