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Diet may lower cognitive risks by 20 percent for those with MS

(Illustration by Elizabeth von Oehsen/The Washington Post; iStock)
2 min

People with multiple sclerosis (MS) who embrace a Mediterranean diet may be about 20 percent less likely to develop problems with memory and thinking skills than those who do not, according to a study scheduled to be presented next month at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting.

MS is a chronic disease of the central nervous system that develops when the immune system mistakenly attacks and harms the protective sheath (myelin) around nerve cells.

The disease affects people in different ways — from vision problems, muscle weakness and spasms to dizziness, bladder control issues and more — but more than half of those with MS develop cognitive problems, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

These problems often get worse over time, prompting many with the condition to make lifestyle changes — including dietary changes — that might improve their outcomes.

A Mediterranean diet, which is based on the traditional cuisine of countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and fish, and it relies on olive oil as the main source of fat. It limits consumption of red meats, highly processed foods and baked goods.

Over the years, numerous studies have attributed heart-healthy benefits to a Mediterranean diet, but this new research, which involved 563 people with MS, found cognitive benefits.

When given a battery of cognitive tests, 13 percent of the study participants who reported most closely adhering to the Mediterranean diet had cognitive impairment, compared with 34 percent of those who reported a diet that was least similar to the Mediterranean plan. The study’s findings are considered preliminary because the research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

This article is part of The Post’s “Big Number” series, which takes a brief look at the statistical aspect of health issues. Additional information and relevant research are available through the hyperlinks.