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Diet in midlife linked to physical and mental function at 70

Diet in midlife linked to physical and mental function at 70

Maintaining a healthy diet in midlife can significantly impact how a person ages later in life.

A study from Harvard University shows a close relationship between eating healthily at age 40 and beyond and an improved quality of life at age 70.

The findings are novel since this is the first study to link healthy eating in middle age to healthy ageing, influencing not just an absence of disease but also mobility and the ability to live independently.

Previous research has linked unhealthy diets with poor health and the onset of chronic disease. The findings were presented at Nutrition 2024, the annual conference of the American Society for Nutrition, which was recently held in Chicago.

As global life expectancy continues to increase, diet is one of the critical behavioural risk factors contributing to the chronic disease burden among older adults. However, the optimal diet for promoting healthy ageing remains largely unexplored in scientific research.

To examine the association between long-term adherence to dietary patterns and healthy ageing, the researchers collected data from over 106,000 people over a 30-year period, beginning in 1986. Participants were at least 39 years old and free of chronic diseases at the start of the study.

Each participant provided information about their diet via questionnaires every four years. Healthy ageing was defined as surviving to age 70 or over whilst maintaining good cognitive function, physical function, mental health, and being free of chronic diseases in 2016.

Results show that nearly half of the study participants had died by 2016. Only 9.2 per cent of participants survived to age 70 or older with good health, maintaining freedom from chronic diseases as well as good physical, cognitive, and mental health. People who followed a healthy diet from age 40 were between 43 and 84 per cent more likely to have a good quality of life in their seventies and beyond.

Anne-Julie Tessier, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said: ‘People who adhered to healthy dietary patterns in midlife, especially those rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, were significantly more likely to achieve healthy ageing. This suggests that what you eat in midlife can play a big role in how well you age.’

Higher intakes of trans fat, sodium, and meat, especially red and processed meats, were associated with a lower chance of healthy ageing. The researchers found that the association between diet and healthy overall ageing remained, even when physical activity and other factors known to impact healthy ageing were accounted for.

Ms Tessier added: ‘Traditionally, research and derived dietary guidelines have focused on preventing chronic diseases like heart disease. Our study provides evidence for dietary recommendations to consider not only disease prevention but also promoting overall healthy ageing as a long-term goal.’


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