It’s been named the world’s best diet for weight loss, but now researchers at the University of South Australia (UniSA) are confident that the Mediterranean diet – combined with a little daily exercise – can also help stave off dementia, slowing the decline in brain function that is commonly associated with older age.
In a world-first study starting this week, researchers at UniSA and Swinburne University, along with a consortium of partners, will explore the health benefits of older people adhering to a Mediterranean diet, while also undertaking daily walking.
Termed the MedWalk Trial, the two-year, $1.8 million NHMRC-funded study will recruit 364 older Australians – aged 60-90 years, living independently in a residential village, and without cognitive impairment – across 28 residential sites in South Australia and Victoria.
It’s a timely study, particularly given Australia’s ageing population, where around a quarter of all Australians will be aged 65+ by 2050.
Lead UniSA researcher, Associate Professor Karen Murphy, says combining the dietary benefits of the Mediterranean Diet with the health benefits of an exercise intervention could deliver significant benefits.
“Dementia is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, behaviour and ability to perform everyday tasks,” Murphy says.
“While it is more common in older Australians, it’s not a normal part of ageing.”
Around 472,000 people are living with dementia in Australia, and each year it costs the economy more than $14 billion – which is expected to balloon to more than $1 trillion over the next 40 years.
“While there is currently no prevention or cure for dementia, there is growing consensus that a focus on risk reduction can have positive outcomes,” Murphy says.
That’s where the MedWalk Trial comes in.
“Early pilots of our MedWalk intervention show improved memory and thinking in a sub-group of older participants adhering to a combination of Mediterranean diet and daily walking for six months,” Murphy says.
“We’re now extending this study across a broader group of older Australians, using carefully-designed behavioural change and maintenance strategies in the hope of substantially reducing the incidence of dementia across Australia.”
A Mediterranean diet is high in fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fish, while being low in saturated fats, red meat, and alcohol.
The 24-month study will randomly assign residential community sites the MedWalk intervention, or their usual lifestyle (the control group), so that all participants who live at one facility will be in the same group.
Changes to diet and walking will be supported through organised and regular motivational, dietary and exercise sessions.
Head of Neurocognitive Ageing Research at Swinburne’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology and Chief Investigator, Professor Andrew Pipingas, says the trial is about trying to prevent the onset of dementia.
“As it’s extremely difficult to find a cure and treat those in the later stages of the disease, focusing our efforts on helping those at risk of developing dementia to stay healthy is one-way to ensure Australians stay well in future.”