Why Olive Oil Should Be Part of Your New Lifestyle Plans

Temple researchers say adding two spoons of extra virgin olive oil to your diet might help stave off Alzheimer's and other cognitive disorders.

Domenico Praticò is a professor and director of the Alzheimer's Center at Temple University. / Courtesy

A new year and a new decade are approaching, which means many men and women are undoubtedly searching for new ways to make their lives better in the future. Domenico Praticò, the director of the Alzheimer's Center at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine (LKSOM) at Temple University, says the best thing that you can do for yourself at the new year is to add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to your daily diet .

It may sound strange, but this is coming from a scientist who has been analyzing the benefits of olive oil for more than 20 years and found that it has the potential to delay the onset of Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease and other diseases linked to aging -- in mice. In his most recent research published online in the journal Aging Cell,Praticò's team found evidence that extra virgin olive oil can defend against a specific type of mental decline linked to frontotemporal dementia.

Previous LKSOM research also revealed that it can preserve memory and protect the brain against Alzheimer's disease. While all of these studies were done in animal models, Praticò insists his team and other researchers have already found enough proof that the oil can also be of benefit for humans.

NextHealth PHL talked to Dr. Praticò about what he has learned about the benefits of extra virgin olive oil in these mice model studies and the way that might influence human diet decisions in the future.

NextHealth PHL: Why should we be adding extra virgin olive oil to our diets instead of other kinds of oil?

Praticò: There is a lot of evidence in the literature that individuals who follow a Mediterranean diet -- a diet that is followed by people who reside in areas like Italy, Greece, and Spain -- had a considerably lower incidence of dementia and Alzheimer's disease compared with people who had a regular Western diet plan.

But we know a diet is a mix of many different components. It's not just one food. If you think about the Mediterranean diet, it's a combination of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans that are supposed to be eaten daily and then once or twice a week you can add some bread, meat or fish.

As researchers, the question we ask is: Is there a specific ingredient that makes the Mediterranean diet unique? The one thing that stands out is the fact that olive oil is a core component for this diet. Why olive oil verses other oils? Because in this area, olive oil is the most natural oil. Olive trees grow there and are unique to that area.

What led you to conduct research about the benefits of extra virgin olive oil?

When we had been thinking about how to proceed in our research we looked to other research, and there was a randomized clinical trial that was performed and published in England where they enrolled patients in two groups. One had a regular diet and another set, on top of the regular diet, could add extra virgin olive oil. They followed these patients for three years to test their cognition and memory ability.

These were patients in their 60s, a time when some kind of cognitive decline is normal. The observations were really startling. For the people with the extra virgin olive oil, their cognitive markers revealed no change and for the people with no, these markers were going up, demonstrating progression toward cognitive decline. Their brains have been aging at a significantly faster pace.

We wanted to see if this could hold true in an animal model because it is a much faster study to do. To do this in humans, you'd need two or three years before you can have an answer. The animal model that we use in our lab can give us an answer over eight to ten months.

Firstwe wanted to knowCan extra virgin olive oil influence the onset and the development of Alzheimer's phenotype within our version? The second question: If the answer is yes, then how does this happen? What's the mechanism? This is something that you can just determine with an animal model. That's why we performed these studies.

What did your research in animals find?

Extra virgin olive oil is a natural activator of autophagy, the human body's way of cleaning out damaged cells. Lots of people have tried to create chemicals that activate this procedure, however they often have a lot of side effects.

What we've found is that, for the first time, we have a natural element from a diet that has no side effects. No one has ever died from olive oil, and it can act as an activator for the autophagic system which can clear the cells from the toxins that you and I accumulate as we get older. For all of us, that's a really big breakthrough from our study.

I have heard certain store-bought brands of olive oil aren't pure or have been blended with other oils. Just how do you know you're getting the ideal olive oil?

The extra virgin olive oil that we use for our research comes straight from the tree, from somebody who doesn't sell to people. But my suggestion is don't buy any blends. You need to look for 2 things: extra virgin, and cold-pressed. Cold press is the method where the oil is extracted from the oliveoil.

You can squeeze an olive many, many times and ways however extra virgin olive oil is different because it's from the first media, which means people don't implement higher temperatures to get more out of the olive. In other oils, they treat the seed with chemicals to extract the oil and change the smell. All vegetable oils are not made the same.

We also don't suggest you cook it, not because it is bad but because the minute you cook the oil, because of the temperature, you change the composition and shed a good deal of the good stuff. You have to eat it the way it is, two tablespoons daily. And I know some people don't like the taste because it is powerful, but you can mix it up with vinegar and put it on your salad but cooking it causes you to eliminate a great deal of the health benefits.