Do dietary patterns influence cognitive function in old age?

Janie Corley, John M. Starr, Geraldine McNeill, Ian J. Deary*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Evidence from observational studies to date suggests that healthy dietary patterns are associated with better cognitive performance in later life. We examined the extent to which childhood intelligence quotient (IQ) and socioeconomic status account for this association.

Methods: Analyses were carried out on 882 participants in the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 Study. Four dietary patterns were extracted using principal components analysis of a food frequency questionnaire, namely "Mediterranean-style," "health aware," "traditional," and "sweet foods." Cognitive function was assessed at the age of 70 years, including general (g) cognitive ability, processing speed, memory, and verbal ability.

Results: Before adjustment for childhood IQ and socioeconomic status, the "Mediterranean-style" dietary pattern was associated with significantly better cognitive performance (effect size as partial eta-square (eta(2)(p)) range = 0.005 to 0.055), and the "traditional" dietary pattern was associated with poorer performance on all cognitive domains measured in old age (eta(2)(p) = 0.009 to 0.103). After adjustment for childhood IQ (measured at the age of 11 years) and socioeconomic status, statistical significance was lost for most associations, with the exception of verbal ability and the "Mediterranean-style" pattern (National Adult Reading Test (NART) eta(p2) = 0.006 and Wechsler Test of Adult Reading (WTAR) eta(2)(p) = 0.013), and the "traditional" pattern (NART eta(2)(p) = 0.035 and WTAR eta(2)(p) = 0.027).

Conclusions: Our results suggest a pattern of reverse causation or confounding; a higher childhood cognitive ability (and adult socioeconomic status) predicts adherence to a "healthy" diet and better cognitive performance in old age. Our models show no direct link between diet and cognitive performance in old age; instead they are related via the lifelong-stable trait of intelligence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1393-1407
Number of pages15
JournalInternational Psychogeriatrics
Issue number9
Early online date4 Jun 2013
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2013


  • dietary patterns
  • childhood intelligence (IQ)
  • cognitive aging
  • birth cohort 1936
  • childhood mental-ability
  • food-frequency questionnaire
  • Mediterranean diet
  • later life
  • Alzheimers-Disease
  • follow-up
  • intelligence differences
  • physical-activity
  • risk


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