The diet, which has made headlines in recent years for its heart and dietary benefits, was shown in a new study to reduce strokes in the brain -- visible on MRI scans. Recent evidence has suggested that these strokes can reduce cognitive function in later years.
The Mediterranean diet has a number of incarnations, but focuses heavily on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, olive oil and nuts, while eliminating meats and many of the fats in a conventional American diet.
"The relationship between this type of brain damage and the Mediterranean diet was comparable with that of high blood pressure," said Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas, a neurologist with Columbia University Medical Center, the study's primary researcher in a statement. "In this study, not eating a Mediterranean-like diet had about the same effect on the brain as having high blood pressure."
Scarmeas told ABCNews.com that while the Mediterranean diet has been related to a series of medical conditions in the past, "There's very limited literature in terms of neurological diseases."
The new study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology Meeting in Toronto.
Researchers followed 712 participants for just under 6 years, dividing them into three groups based on how closely they stuck to the Mediterranean diet. Researchers did a brain scan to see the infarcts -- strokes in the brain that may not show symptoms in the person -- that had occurred.
Patients who stuck to the Mediterranean diet at a moderate level had their risk of an infarct reduced by 21 percent and those who stuck to the diet strictly saw their risk for an infarct drop by 36 percent.
The new study follows a number of others by the researchers looking at the possible benefits of a Mediterranean diet on cognition in old age. This is, however, the first time sticking with a Mediterranean diet has been associated with fewer strokes visible on brain scans.
Scarmeas said that while the results of the study are promising, researchers cannot yet be sure that the Mediterranean diet itself is responsible for the reduction in strokes. "It's not a clinical trial, where we assign people to a certain diet," he said.
However, he explained, that he recommends the diet to his patients.
"We know that this diet is helpful for a series of medical conditions and diseases. So it makes sense to follow the diet given these benefits," Scarmeas said, adding that there are additional potential benefits in terms of avoiding stroke.
Other doctors praised the potential of the diet intervention.
"I do think that there is a general, consistent message emerging, of which this is a piece, that there are things we can do to keep our brains healthy, and it doesn't mean medication," said Dr. Peter Whitehouse, a professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "I like to encourage the message that there are things beyond drugs can one can do to keep their brain healthy, and this is a good one."
A Boon, But Not A Holy Grail
Dr. David Knopman, a neurologist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said that this study, like those before it, suggest the benefit of a possible diet change.
"For middle aged people, and for healthy elderly, it suggests that adherence to a diet similar to the Mediterranean one has some long-term benefits," he said.
But while Knopman said the Mediterranean diet shows promise, he cautioned against assuming it is the holy grail of avoiding Alzheimer's.
"As has been shown in the past, diet is but one component of a healthy lifestyle, and that includes regular exercise, treatment of diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol -- if they exist, and avoidance of smoking," he said.
Simply following the diet, without taking the other steps, Knopman said, "probably would have negligible benefits."