Eat well during middle age, be well in 70s

Nov. 8, 2013—Women who eat a Mediterranean-style or similarly healthy diet during middle age are about 40 percent more likely to be alive—and in good mental and physical health—at age 70 and older than women whose diet is less nutritious, according to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Heart Association define a Mediterranean-type diet as one that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, nuts, beans and fish. It limits red meat, dairy products, processed foods and sodium.

About the study

The study included information from 10,670 women participating in the long-running Nurses’ Health Study. The women filled out dietary questionnaires when they were in their late 50s to early 60s and then answered questions about their health 15 years later.

Researchers used several methods to score the women’s diets. One is called the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI). It includes a large intake of vegetables (except potatoes), fruits (excluding juices), nuts, legumes and whole grains and limited amounts of sugary beverages, processed meat and sodium. The second scoring method was based on adherence to the Mediterranean diet.

The researchers also separated “healthy aging” from “usual aging” based on an assessment of four health domains. Women were considered “healthy agers” if they had no cognitive (brain function) impairment, no physical disabilities and good mental health and were free of 11 chronic diseases—such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease and multiple sclerosis.

The study found that those who closely adhered to the AHEI diet pattern over the years were 34 percent more likely to be healthy agers than those whose diet was scored as unhealthy; women on the Mediterranean diet were 46 percent more likely to be healthy agers.

Some individual findings stood out as having a particularly significant effect on healthy aging, such as:

  • Eating greater amounts of fruit.
  • Drinking fewer sugar-sweetened beverages.

One limitation of the study: It included only women. Also, it was based on only two dietary questionnaires.

The take-home message
The study didn’t prove that healthy diets lead to healthier aging. However, the authors noted that their findings are consistent with prior research. Healthy diets have been linked to a significantly lower risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and sclerosis-type diseases.

“Maintaining physical, cognitive and mental health with aging may provide a more powerful incentive for dietary change than simply prolonging life or avoiding any single chronic disease,” the study concluded.

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