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What you eat in midlife determines health in old age

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Midlife diet determines health in old age.

What you eat when you're middle aged could determine how healthy you are in later life, according to a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Unlike previous studies that looked at how diets are linked to certain diseases, this latest study encompasses a broader view of healthy aging overall.

Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston conducted the study, along with Cecilia Samieri from the Research Center INSERM in Bordeaux, France. Samieri pointed out that most health conditions and other diseases develop gradually over a period of several years, which is why it's important to consider disease risks throughout an individual's entire lifespan, and not just in old age.

Samieri also noted that midlife is an especially relevant period when diseases like atherosclerosis and dementia often start.

The study included 10,670 women in their late 50s and early 60s who were participants in the long-term Nurses' Health Study that started in 1976. None of these women had experienced a major health condition or disease since the middle 1980s.

All of the participants were asked to complete two questionnaires regarding their diet – one in 1984 and the other in 1986.

The researchers then scored the women’s answers about their diet according to how well it matched a Mediterranean-style diet, which is generally considered a diet consistent with healthy eating.

Next, the research team followed the women until they reached their 70s to see how well they had aged.

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They defined "healthy aging" as not having any major chronic diseases or other physical and/or mental impairment, including problems with their thinking or memory.

Using that definition as the basis for determining how well the participants aged, the researchers found that 11 percent (1,171 women) were "healthy agers", while the rest of were not and therefore called "usual agers".

They also found that the healthy agers exercised more during middle age and were thinner than the usual agers. The healthy agers were also less likely to smoke and have lower blood pressure and cholesterol than their counterparts who aged in the usual manner.

The women who were the healthiest eaters in the study were also 34 percent to 46 percent less likely to suffer from any chronic diseases or other physical or mental impairment, compared with the unhealthiest eaters.

Although the study only involved women, Samieri believes that similar results would be observed in men.

Given that heart disease is the number one cause of death in America, and that obesity and being overweight are factors known to increase your risk of heart disease, it’s never too late to improve your diet and make other lifestyle changes for better health.

And it’s especially important in midlife, as this study strongly suggests what you eat in your late 50s and early 60s can have a major factor on your health in later life.

The so-called Mediterranean Diet is a good start, as it emphasizes eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, including chicken, as well as whole grains and low-fat dairy.

SOURCE: Annals of Internal Medicine, The Association Between Dietary Patterns at Midlife and Health in Aging: An Observational Study, Cécilia Samieri, PhD; Qi Sun, MD, et al. Published November 5, 2013. Ann Intern Med. 2013;159(9):584-591. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-159-9-201311050-00004