As an ageing population, brain health is an important topic and researchers are continually searching for ways to improve cognitive health, particularly in the area of dementia. Whilst medical advances have come a long way, there is a growing number of studies highlighting the link between lifestyle factors and nutrition, and brain health and memory.
It is important to note a lot of the research has been conducted on mice, however there are many human studies highlighting the benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), and the Mediterranean diet overall for improving memory and decreasing risk of developing dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease1. You can read more about the Mediterranean dietary pattern here.
There is believed to be three main factors linking nutrition and the ageing brain – these are reduced blood flow (due to atherosclerosis), mitochondrial dysfunction (due to reactive oxygen species in the brain) and inflammation (typically as a result of the natural ageing process)2
Recent 2020 research highlights that one component of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, hydroxytyrosol, may be the key to EVOO’s brain health benefits. Hydroxytyrosol is a type of polyphenol and has been found to have neuroprotective effects, primarily by improving neuron function in the brain, as well as influencing synapse plasticity3. Hydroxytyrosol has also been found in previous research to be anti-inflammatory and has antioxidant properties, both of which are beneficial to reducing oxidative stress and improving cognition3.
Both the Mediterranean diet pattern, and the individual nutrient characteristics of the diet, have been shown to reduce oxidative stress; resulting in a positive effect for cognition. Unsaturated fatty acids, including both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, are particularly protective for cognitive function, as are the polyphenols in Extra Virgin Olive Oil2. The intake of additional micronutrients within the Mediterranean diet including vitamin B12, C and E as well as folate, flavonoids and carotenes have also been shown in long-term observational studies to decrease the risk of age-related cognitive decline. A reduction in inflammation has also been shown with the Mediterranean diet, which can impact cognitive function2. A meta-analysis has shown that overall, cognitive impairment can be reduced with moderate-high adherence to the Mediterranean diet4.
Prospective studies, as well as a systematic review in 2013, indicate the Mediterranean diet can slow down cognition decline, and the progression of dementia.2 The most common form of dementia is Alzhemier’s disease, affecting up to 70% of all people with the disease. Late-onset Alzheimer’s disease in particular is thought to be largely attributed to lifestyle factors. Data indicates up to one third of cases of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease can be prevented by early control of vascular risk factors, which includes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, obesity, sedentary behaviour and sleep apnoea5. Extra Virgin Olive Oil consumption is known to improve some of these risk factors, particularly blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It is believed to be the phenolic compounds of EVOO, including oleuropein and oleocanthal that provide neuroprotective effects, due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties5.
One 2016 systematic review of the literature found the Mediterranean diet is associated with reduced conversion from a mild cognitive impairment, to Alzheimer’s disease6. Another study found those with mild cognitive impairment and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease had a statistically significant lower adherence rate to the Mediterranean diet.
Overall, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and the Mediterranean diet have convincing evidence to indicate benefits for brain health. This is primarily due to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity of polyphenols.
View article references
- Lauretti E, Iuliano L, Praticò D. Chapter 34 - Extra-virgin olive oil, cognition and brain health. In: Preedy VR, Watson RR, eds. Olives and Olive Oil in Health and Disease Prevention (Second Edition). San Diego: Academic Press; 2021:415-423.
- Petersson SD, Philippou E. Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md). 2016;7(5):889-904.
- D’Andrea G, Ceccarelli M, Bernini R, et al. Hydroxytyrosol stimulates neurogenesis in aged dentate gyrus by enhancing stem and progenitor cell proliferation and neuron survival. The FASEB Journal. 2020;34(3):4512-4526.
- Singh B, Parsaik AK, Mielke MM, et al. Association of mediterranean diet with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Alzheimers Dis. 2014;39(2):271-282.
- Román GC, Jackson RE, Reis J, Román AN, Toledo JB, Toledo E. Extra-virgin olive oil for potential prevention of Alzheimer disease. Revue Neurologique. 2019;175(10):705-723.
- Hardman RJ, Kennedy G, Macpherson H, Scholey AB, Pipingas A. Adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet and effects on cognition in adults: a qualitative evaluation and systematic review of longitudinal and prospective trials. Frontiers in nutrition. 2016;3.