Yes Virginia, People Who Eat Healthier Really Do Live Longer

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Medical and dietary experts have long recommended healthy eating habits. Now, on the eve of one of our most calorically indulgent holidays, a new study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that those with healthy diets really do to live longer and feel better. 

In a study published in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers from the University of Maryland and five other institutions found that diets favoring “healthier foods” were associated with significantly reduced mortality when compared to diets high in fat and sugar. Their study investigated the associations of dietary patterns with mortality through analysis of the eating patterns of over 2500 adults between the ages of 70 and 79 over a ten-year period. 

According to lead author Amy L. Anderson, and senior author Nadine R. Sahyoun, both of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Maryland, the results of this study suggest that older adults who follow current dietary guidelines to consume relatively high amounts of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry and fish are more likely to have better nutritional status, higher quality of life and better survival than those who do not follow these guidelines. 

“Surprisingly few studies have investigated the associations of empirical dietary patterns with mortality,” said Anderson. “Our study is the first to examine the dietary patterns of a relatively large and diverse U.S. cohort of adults aged 70 and over, and explore associations of these dietary patterns with survival. This study also is unique in that we also evaluated participants’ quality of life and their nutritional status through detailed biochemical measures.” 

Shifts in Causes of Death & Population Age

The researchers note that the leading causes of death have shifted from infectious diseases to chronic, age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. These chronic illnesses can be affected by diet. Research has repeatedly linked excess weight and obesity to chronic, age-related illnesses such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes, certain cancers and stroke, all of which may be influenced by diet. Between 2000 and 2030, the number of adults worldwide aged 65 years and older is projected to more than double from approximately 420 million to 973 million. 

This study examined the dietary patterns of a large and diverse group of older adults and explored associations of these dietary patterns with survival over a 10-year period. A secondary goal was to evaluate participants’ quality of life and nutritional status according to their dietary patterns. 

To do this, the researchers determined for the study participants the consumption frequency of 108 different food items and then grouped the participants into six different clusters according to their predominant food choices: “Healthy foods” (374 participants); “High-fat dairy products” (332); “Meat, fried foods, and alcohol” (693); “Breakfast cereal” (386); “Refined grains” (458); “Sweets and desserts” (339). 

The “Healthy foods” cluster was characterized by relatively higher intake of low-fat dairy products, fruit, whole grains, poultry, fish, and vegetables, and by lower consumption of meat, fried foods, sweets, high-calorie drinks, and added fat. The “High fat dairy products” cluster had higher intake of foods such as ice cream, cheese, and 2 percent and whole milk and yogurt, and lower intake of poultry, low-fat dairy products, rice, and pasta. 

After controlling for gender, age, race, clinical site, education, physical activity, smoking, and total calorie intake, the “High-fat dairy products” cluster had a 40 percent higher risk of mortality than the “Healthy foods” cluster. The “Sweets and desserts” cluster had a 37 percent higher risk. No significant differences in risk of mortality were seen between the “Healthy foods” cluster and the “Breakfast cereal” or “Refined grains” clusters. 

The study also evaluated participants’ quality of life and nutritional status. Quality of life measures were based on self-assessments of health by the participants. Nutritional status was determined through detailed biochemical measures. 

“Because a substantial percentage of older adults in this study followed the “Healthy foods” dietary pattern, adherence to such a diet appears a feasible and realistic recommendation for potentially improved survival and quality of life in the growing older adult population,” said Anderson. 

“Our study supports the current recommendations for healthy eating,” said Sahyoun, “and if people see the direct association provided by this study with living longer and having a better quality of life, then maybe more people will recognize the importance of adopting these recommendations, even at older ages, as part of a healthy lifestyle.” 

The article is Dietary patterns and survival of older adults by Amy L Anderson, Ph.D.; Tamara B Harris, M.D., M.S.; Frances A Tylavsky, Dr.P.H.; Sara E Perry, M.A., M.P.H.; Denise K Houston, Ph.D., R.D.; Trisha F Hue, M.P.H.; Elsa S Strotmeyer, Ph.D., M.P.H.; and Nadine R Sahyoun, Ph.D., R.D. It appears in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 111, Issue 1 (January 2011) published by Elsevier. 

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging. 

*Source: University of Maryland

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