Countless studies have already demonstrated the benefits of olive oil in protecting against high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and other conditions that contribute to heart disease, but this is the first one to look at the effect of olive oil on strokes.
"We often think about diet and heart disease. However, it's also important to link diet to other kinds of vascular disease, including stroke," says neurologist Ralph Sacco, M.D., president of the American Heart Association and chairman of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "This interesting paper adds to our information about the relationship of olive oil to stroke risk."
French researchers combed through the medical records of more than 7,600 men and women age 65 and older from three cities in France — all of whom were enrolled in a long-term health study.
Participants typically ate a Mediterranean-type diet, which is high in olive oil, fruits, vegetables and grains, and low in red meat and dairy products. None had a history of stroke. In addition to their age, weight and information on whether they smoked and how many alcoholic drinks they had each week, participants described the kinds of foods they ate, including the fats and oils they preferred. The researchers then fine-tuned olive oil use into categories of:
- No use.
- Moderate use (cooking or in salad dressing and to add flavor to food).
- Intensive use (both in cooking and salad dressing and to add flavor to food).
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.
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