Mediterranean Diet Linked to Reduced Depression in Senior Women

Linda Harris

Written by Linda Harris

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Recent research has highlighted a connection between the Mediterranean diet and a lower risk of depression, particularly in older women. This diet, rich in fish and monounsaturated oils, has been shown to have a greater beneficial impact on women than men. The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that 5.7% of adults over the age of 60 suffer from depression, with a higher incidence among women. The findings, which were published in the British Journal of Nutrition, indicate that women who closely adhere to the Mediterranean diet have a 60% lower likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms.

Study Insights from the Italian NutBrain Research

The Italian NutBrain study, which included 325 men and 473 women aged between 65 and 97, utilized a 102-item dietary questionnaire to calculate the Mediterranean diet score (MDS) of participants. Those with a higher MDS were found to be 55% less likely to suffer from depression, with the rate increasing to 60% for women. Conversely, no significant effect was observed in men. The study also noted a disparity in reported depressive symptoms, with 27.9% of women and just 8.0% of men indicating such issues.

Specific Nutritional Components and Their Effects

The research shed light on the importance of fish consumption, revealing a 44% reduction in depression risk, which jumped to 56% for women. In fact, each additional gram of fish consumed per day was associated with a 2% decrease in depression risk for women. Fresh fish consumption of three or more servings weekly was linked to a 62% lower risk of depression, although canned tuna did not have the same effect. Additionally, a preference for monounsaturated over saturated fatty acids was connected to a 42% lower risk of depression in women. For men, nut and fruit consumption was surprisingly effective, reducing depressive symptoms by 82%.

Exploring Gender-Specific Effects

Registered dietitian Michelle Routhenstein expressed surprise at the gender-specific effects observed in the study, noting the higher prevalence of depression among women. Factors such as being unmarried, living alone, taking more medication, and having a poorer health perception were suggested as potential contributors. Dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick was less surprised by the results, pointing to other research that has demonstrated the influence of diet on women’s mental health. Possible explanations for the gender disparity include differences in brain structure and a higher susceptibility to mental illness among women.

The Role of Diet in Brain Health and Inflammation

The anti-inflammatory properties and support for brain health offered by fish and monounsaturated fatty acids are thought to play a role in reducing depression. Trials such as HELFIMED and SMILES have demonstrated that the addition of fish oil to the diet can lead to decreased depression scores. There is also a suggestion that the cardiovascular benefits associated with these nutrients may indirectly enhance mental well-being.

Furthermore, the Mediterranean diet’s inclusion of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, and seeds has been connected to improved mental health outcomes. The presence of polyphenols, flavonoids, and phytochemicals in these staples may diminish oxidative stress and inflammation, which in turn can enhance mood and cognitive function. A reduced intake of sugar and refined grains might also contribute to better mental health, while the impact of diet on the microbiome could be another factor affecting mental health outcomes.

Understanding the Findings and Their Implications

The findings from the study underscore the importance of diet in managing mental health, especially as it pertains to older adults. While the study provides compelling evidence for the mental health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, particularly for women, it raises questions about why men do not experience the same positive effects. This research adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests a holistic approach to wellness, which includes a balanced diet, can have significant benefits for mental health and overall well-being. As such, dietary recommendations for older adults could be tailored to emphasize components of the Mediterranean diet to help mitigate the risk of depression.