HealthDay News — Consuming a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with reduced white matter hyperintensity volume (WMHV), a marker of small-vessel brain damage, data indicate.

Among participants in a cohort study, each one-point increase in a Mediterranean diet rating score was associated with a significantly lower volume of white matter hyperintensities on MRI (P=0.01), Clinton Wright, MD, of the University of Miami, and colleagues reported in the Archives of Neurology.

The researchers suggested the diet’s benefits may be attributable to the prevalence of monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, and said that the findings “add to a growing body of literature that a Mediterranean diet may be protective against subclinical vascular damage.”

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Although previous studies have shown reductions in the risk for heart disease, stroke, cognitive disorders and other vascular events, none have assessed the diet’s relationship with WMHV. So Wright and colleagues administered semiquantitative food frequency questionnaires to 955 participants in the Northern Manhattan Study. Mean patient age was 72 years; 64.6% were Hispanic, whereas 15.6% were white and 17.5% were black.

Mediterranean diet scores were assigned on scale of 0 to nine, and quantitative brain MRIs were conducted to assess patients’ WMHV. The researchers found that  women were less likely to eat a Mediterranean diet than man, and participants who reported lower BMI and higher physical activity levels had higher Mediterranean diet scores.

Overall, the researchers identified a trend towards more WMHV among those with lower Mediterranean diet scores was identified, but the finding wasn’t significant (P=0.07). However, each one point increase in Mediterranean-diet score was associated with lower-log WHMV volume. 

In an adjusted analysis, the ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fat was the only component of the Mediterranean-diet score that independently predicted WMHV (P=0.001). This finding indicates that monounsaturated fat ratio may be “the most important component” of the diet in predicting small vessel damage, according to the researchers.

They called for more population-based studies to verify and replicate these findings.

Gardener H et al. Arch Neurol. 2012; 69(2): 251-256.