After five years, 148 strokes had occurred among the group. Taking into account other risk factors, the researchers concluded that participants who regularly used olive oil for cooking, in salad dressing and to flavor food had a 41 percent lower risk of stroke than those who never used olive oil (1.5 percent compared with 2.6 percent). The more olive oil the participants used, the lower their risk of stroke.
The research was published in the June 15 online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Substituting olive oil for saturated fats — found in butter, cream, cheese and fatty meats — would likely shift a diet toward a healthier pattern, says lead author Cécilia Samieri, a nutritional epidemiologist with the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Bordeaux, France.
"So, based on these findings as well as previous studies and considering that olive oil has no harmful effects," Samieri says, "once clinical findings confirm the results, increasing olive oil intake could be recommended for older men and women."
Still, notes Sacco, an expert on stroke, "it's always hard to tease apart whether it's olive oil specifically or other foods that are part of a heart-healthy diet that make the difference, including fish, fruits and vegetables and whole grains." Whatever the reason, "substituting olive oil for butter and other less healthy fats makes sense," he says. "It's never too late to make positive changes to lower the risk of stroke," Sacco emphasizes. "A healthy diet is good for the brain as well as the heart."
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Nissa Simon, who lives in New Haven, Conn., writes about nutrition and medical issues.