September 12/Press Association -- Following a strict Mediterranean diet offers substantial protection against heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, said a study.

Researchers analysed existing studies on the health gains of eating a diet rich in in olive oil, grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables and fish, but low in meat, dairy and alcohol.

The new study suggests that a "score" based on adherence to the Mediterranean diet could be used as a tool for helping cut the chance of people dying prematurely and from a range of diseases.

Experts from the University of Florence looked at 12 studies on more than 1.5 million people, whose health was followed for between three and 18 years.

All the studies included detail on a numerical score to estimate how much people stuck to the diet, called an "adherence score."

The combined results showed that strictly following a Mediterranean diet reduced the overall risk of dying early by 9%.

The chance of dying from cancer fell 6% and the chance of dying from cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, by 9%.

The diet also resulted in a 13% reduction in the incidence of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the authors said, "Greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with a significant improvement in health status.

"These results seem to be clinically relevant for public health, in particular for encouraging a Mediterranean-like dietary pattern for primary prevention of major chronic diseases."

Kieran Breen, director of research and development at the Parkinson's Disease Society, said, "Studies such as this are interesting as they show that some foods are better than others in terms of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

"Parkinson's Disease is caused by a depletion of dopamine-producing nerve cells, which is the chemical required to send messages to parts of the brain that control movement.

"As we do not know what causes the death of these nerve cells, we cannot say which foods, if any, will prevent the condition from developing.

"However, a good balanced diet will help these nerve cells to function properly, which may make the body less susceptible to factors which give rise to the development of Parkinson's."

Harriet Millward, deputy chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, said, "This study confirms that eating a Mediterranean diet -+ one with high levels of fruit, vegetables, cereals and fish and a moderate intake of red wine -- can help reduce a person's risk of dementia.

"Previous research has shown that a healthy body promotes a healthy mind. Regular exercise, mental stimulation and eating a balanced diet all help keep our brains healthy.

"700,000 people in the U.K. have dementia. Much more research is needed if we are to find new preventions and treatments."  

From the September 15, 2008, Prepared Foods e-Flash