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May 07 2015 Posted: 12:37 IST

People who eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish, moderate alcohol use - and not much red meat - may be less likely to experience declines in their memory and thinking skills. This is according to a new study published in the May 6, 2015, issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“The exciting thing about this study is that this benefit was found in people who were at high risk of cardiovascular problems and suggests that a healthy diet could be beneficial even for people who already have some health problems” said study author Dr Andrew Smyth of the HRB Clinical Research Facility Galway at the National University of Ireland Galway, and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

For the study, 27,860 people in 40 countries were followed for an average of about five years. All participants were 55 or older and had diabetes or a history of heart disease, stroke or peripheral artery disease. People who had experienced a recent stroke, congestive heart failure and other serious conditions were not included in the study.

Participants’ thinking and memory skills were tested at the start of the study, after two years and after about five years. Participants were asked at the beginning of the study how often they ate certain types of foods, including fruits and vegetables, nuts and soy proteins, whole grains, deep fried foods and drank alcohol, as well as the ratio of fish to meat and eggs in their diet.

The study participants were followed until they experienced a heart attack, stroke, hospitalisation for congestive heart failure or death from cardiovascular disease or until the end of the study.

The thinking and memory tests yielded total scores with a maximum of 30 points. Participants were considered to have declined in their skills if their score dropped by three or more points during the study. A total of 4,699 people had a decline in their thinking and memory skills.

People with the healthiest diets were 24 percent less likely to have cognitive decline than people with the least healthy diets. Among the 5,687 people with the healthiest diet, 782, or about 14 percent, had cognitive decline, compared to 987, or about 18 percent, of the 5,459 people with the least healthy diets.

The results were the same when researchers accounted for other factors that could affect the results, such as physical activity, high blood pressure and history of cancer.

Dr Smyth is supported by the Health Research Board of Ireland and the study was supported by Boehringer Ingelheim.

 Graham Love, Chief Executive at the Health Research Board, commented: “Findings like these show that health research has a central role to play in increasing our capacity to prevent illness in the first place.”

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