A diet of fruits, vegetables and fish may protect our brains as we age, maintaining our memory and cognitive skills. The longer we adhere to the healthy diet, the better health our brains will maintain in the long run, according to a recent study.

Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario tracked the eating habits and overall health of nearly 28,000 people aged 55 and up who were taking part in two international studies covering 40 countries.

The diets of the volunteers were considered healthy if they featured plenty of fruit, veggies, nuts, fish and soy products, and were categorized as less healthy if they were high in red meat, fried foods and sugar.

Over the course of the five-year study, 4,700 of the study participants began to show signs of cognitive decline. Of those with the healthiest diets, 14 percent experienced memory and cognitive decline. Among those with the least healthy diets, the rate was 18 percent.

The 4 percent difference may not seem that large, but it represents a 24-percent reduction in the risk of mental decline for those who adhered to a healthy diet, the researchers said.

This suggests that improving overall diet quality can have a beneficial effect where the risk of memory loss and cognitive decline is concerned, according to study lead author and nephrologist Dr. Andrew Smyth.

His study is in line with some previous research that focused on specific diets investigated for their role in improving cognitive function. The new study, however, had a different focus.

"The difference in our study is we didn't prescribe a particular diet or explore for a particular diet pattern," he said.

"We just wanted to look at a diverse cohort of people from all around the world and analyze what their risk for cognitive decline would be if they consumed what most organizations would consider a 'healthy diet.' "

No one single food can protect the brain, Smyth, a kidney specialist, emphasized — it's rather a suite of healthy food choices working together.

"Our data suggest that an overall healthy diet is more important than the consumption of any one particular food," he said.

Other experts say they agree with that conclusion.

"This study strengthens the support for the overall idea that eating a balanced diet may be beneficial to reduce your risk of cognitive decline," said Dr. Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer's Association, who was not involved in the new study.

This study was published in the journal Neurology. 

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