Olive oil, which has long been associated with a heart-healthy diet, has now also been linked with a lower risk of stroke.
Researchers surveyed 7,625 people age 65 or older in three French cities to determine their levels of olive oil consumption. Then, they examined the participants’ medical records for occurrence of stroke, over about five years of follow-up.
About 40% of participants said they were moderate users of olive oil (using it for cooking or in dressings or with bread) and 37% were heavy users (using it for all three purposes); 23% of participants said they never used olive oil.
Heavy consumers of olive oil were 41% less likely to have a stroke during the follow-up period than people who never used olive oil, researchers found. Further, the top third of heavy consumers were 73% less likely to have stroke than those in the bottom third of the group.
Overall, 148 strokes occurred in the study population. None of the participants had a history of stroke or heart attack prior to joining the study. The researchers found that the results were statistically significant for ischemic stroke (caused by the clogging of an artery to the brain), but not for hemorrhagic stroke (caused by the bursting of a blood vessel in the brain).
Olive oil, rich in cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fats, is oft touted for its health benefits. But while the stroke-risk reduction found in the new study persisted even after researchers adjusted for other stroke risk factors like weight, diet, exercise and income, it’s important to note that such factors still play a powerful role in overall health.
For instance, olive oil is typically part of a larger Mediterranean-style diet, which includes many other healthful food sources. “Olive oil is usually added to other foods (i.e., fruits and vegetables, legumes, cereals and fish) and may contribute indirect benefits by increasing the palatability and consumption of foods that may have health-promoting potential,” the authors of the study, led by Cécilia Samieri of the Université Bordeaux, wrote in Neurology.
In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas of Columbia University Medical Center noted that the study was observational and that the association between olive oil and reduced stroke risk should be “claimed with confidence only if the observations … withstand the trial of randomized interventions.”
In the meantime, it can’t hurt to include more olive oil in your diet — especially if you use it instead of saturated fat sources like butter. The current study didn’t specify what types of olive oil were used, but it did note that French stores carry extra virgin olive oil almost exclusively.