November 4th, 2013

Healthy Diet in Middle Age Leads to Healthier Old Age

New results from a long-running study offer fresh evidence that a “healthy” diet is actually good for you. The study shows that women who followed a healthy diet while in middle age had a much better chance of reaching age 70 without any of the major illnesses or impairments usually associated with old age.

In a paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Cecilia Samieri and colleagues analyzed data from 10,670 women who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study and who had no major diseases in the mid-1980s when they were in their late 60s and early 70s. They found that women with healthy diets (as assessed by the Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010 and the Alternate Mediterranean diet scores) were much more likely to reach the age of 70 with no major chronic diseases, no impairment in cognition, no physical disabilities, and intact mental health.

As described by the authors, the healthy diets “generally focus on greater intakes of plant foods, whole grains, and fish or long-chain ω-3 PUFAs; moderate intake of alcohol; and lower intake of red and processed meats.”

Compared to women with the lowest diet scores, women with diet scores in the highest quintile had a 61% to 80% increase in the odds of becoming a “healthy ager.” After adjusting for other known risk factors, the women in the highest quintile had a 34%-46% increase. These trends were all highly significant. The healthy agers also had less hypertension and hypercholesterolemia, exercise more, and were less likely to be obese or to smoke.

Only 11% of the women in the overall study group met the definition of healthy agers. Two-thirds had no major chronic disease, 43% had no mental health limitations, and 27% had no impairment of physical function. Twelve percent of the women had had a heart attack or bypass surgery, 8% had diabetes, and 6% had breast cancer.

Summarizing their findings, the authors wrote that they “found that greater quality of diet at midlife was strongly associated with increased odds of good health and well-being among individuals surviving to older ages. These data may have an especially important role in promoting a healthy diet—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.”

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