This Diet Works Better Than Exercise to Protect Aging Brains in Mice, But is Hard for Humans

Our brains age naturally as we grow older, but new research suggests that a low-fat, calorie restrictive diet may be able to keep this aging to a minimum. 

The study, published online in Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, investigated how lifelong diet and exercise regimes affected the brains of mice. Researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China kept adult mice on either a low-fat diet, a high-fat diet, or a diet with 40 percent caloric reduction. The mice also had access to running wheels and were allowed to use them at their own will. Time spent on the wheels was recorded throughout their lifetime.

After the mice died, their brains were then analyzed for age-induced inflammation, an important hallmark of brain health. Results revealed that mice who were fed a low-fat diet in addition to calorie reduction had reduced age-induced inflammation in their brain cells.

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“Increased inflammation is observed in the human CNS (central nervous system) during aging,” lead study researcher Bart Eggen from the University of Groningen told Newsweek. Brain inflammation is also seen in neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric conditions, usually to a higher degree, he said.

Eggen noted that the mice in the study adhered to the diet for their entire lives. It’s not clear if the diet would have the same results if researchers were to switch the mice to it later in life. “What we don’t know is if the changes we observed under these dietary conditions are reversible," he said. "For instance, if we switch animals from a high-fat diet to a more protective, low-fat, low-caloric intake condition, could we revert the effect of the high-fat diet?”

03_27_plate A diet with 40 percent less calories than recommended may have positive effects on the brain. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In theory, controlling age-related inflammation in the brain could help control certain disease risks. A strict low-fat, calorie restricted diet may be a non-medicinal way to achieve this. However, the diet is far more difficult to achieve in humans than it is in mice.

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“It’s one of those things that can be really hard to sustain, and maybe not even possible for the average person,” Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, and CEO of NY Nutrition Group, a private nutrition counseling firm, in New York City, told Newsweek. “They [dieters] would not only find it difficult to feel full and satisfied, but it may lead to increased cravings and binges.”

Even if a low-fat, reduced calorie diet is proved to have the same effect in humans, the effort to uphold this diet may not be worth the result. “I would say to take this information with a grain of salt...I would not suggest this type of diet for most people,” said Moskovitz.