A study is exploring whether the heavily plant-based Mediterranean diet and daily exercise can slow the development of dementia in older people.

The University of South Australia, Swinburne University and other research partners are undertaking the two-year MedWalk Trial with 364 Australians aged 60-90 years who live in independent and retirement living villages in South Australia and Victoria.

The trial will explore the benefits of healthy physical lifestyle combined with a Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fish and low in saturated fats, red meat and alcohol.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Karen Murphy said the study aimed to see whether a Mediterranean diet and daily walking could slow the development of dementia.

“We want to explore the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle with predominantly a Mediterranean diet combined with regular physical activity, compared with a control group, which are individuals following their usual diet and lifestyle, over two years,” Associate Professor Murphy told Australian Ageing Agenda.

Associate Professor Karen Murphy

The study will also look at other health outcomes including cardiovascular health, cognitive function, gut microbiome and wellbeing, she said. 

The study involves participants recording all food and beverages consumed and the Mediterranean Diet Adherence Score, which is a 14-point score categorising key food groups in a Mediterranean diet, said Associate Professor Murphy, an accredited practicing dietitian and an associate professor in nutrition and dietetics at UniSA.

In the first year of the trial, participants will regularly see a dietitian and exercise physiologist to help set goals, swap to a MedDiet and increase activity.

“They will also receive food hampers that are representative of the MedDiet as well as recipe books, cooking classes and group sessions for both walking and diet education,” Associate Professor Murphy said.

Her previous research has shown a Mediterranean diet among older people could reduce risks related to cardiovascular health.

Another study found improvements in cognitive performance among older people living in independent living facilities in Victoria, she said.

“Cognition is important to maintain through older ages. As that declines or if it rapidly declines in a more serious way, that can increase your risk of dementia,” Associate Professor Murphy said.

Hopefully there will be a reduction in the development of dementia at the end of the trial, she said.

“[We also hope to get] good evidence that we can use to change dietary guidelines that would be more specific for older individuals or for trying to prevent dementia,” she said.

The other research partners include Australia’s Deakin University, La Trobe University, RMIT University and Murdoch University, Sheffield Hallam University and University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom and University College Cork in Ireland.

The study is funded by a $1.8 million National Health and Medical Research Council grant.

Independent and retirement living providers interested in participating in the study should email  Associate Professor Karen Murphy at Karen.Murphy@unisa.edu.au.

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