The way women eat in their late 50s and early 60s may have some connection to how well they age later on, according to a new study.
Earlier studies examining the benefits of a healthy diet have typically focused on its link to specific diseases or death. The new report took a big-picture view of healthy aging in general.
Since most health conditions develop slowly over many years, it's important to look at people's disease risks over the course of their lives - not just in old age.
A researcher from France who worked on the study with researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston said "midlife exposures are thought to be a particularly relevant period…for example, atherosclerosis in cardiac diseases (and) brain lesions in dementia, start in midlife."
The report included 10,670 women who were enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study, a large, long-term study which began in 1976.
Women included in the new analysis were in their late 50s and early 60s and had no major chronic diseases in the mid-1980s.
All participants filled out two diet questionnaires, one in 1984 and one in 1986. The researchers assigned women scores based on how closely their diets matched a general healthy eating index or a Mediterranean-style diet.
Next, they followed the participants to see how well they aged through 2000, when women were in their 70s.
The researchers defined "healthy aging" as having no major chronic diseases, physical impairment, mental health problems or trouble with thinking and memory.
According to that definition, 1,171 women (11 percent) were healthy agers. The rest aged normally.
General diet was measured on a scale from 0 (least healthy) to 110 (healthiest). Healthy agers had an average diet score of 53.2, compared to 50.6 among usual agers.
The Mediterranean diet scale ranged from 0 to 9, with higher scores again reflecting healthier diets. Healthy agers scored an average of 4.5 on that scale, compared to 4.3 for usual agers.
Compared with usual agers, healthy agers were also less likely to be obese or smoke and they exercised more in mid-life. Fewer had high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Women with the highest diet scores were 34 to 46 percent more likely to have no chronic diseases or impairment in old age versus those with the worst diets, after other health-related factors were taken into account.
Still, the new study can't prove diet was responsible for healthy aging, researchers said.
Although it included only women, they said there is no reason to believe that similar associations shouldn't be observed among both genders.
Nutrition experts advise eating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, lean meat and chicken and eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week.
Source: Annals of Internal Medicine, online November 5, 2013.
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