Supporting the idea that it is never too late to adopt a healthy diet, researchers in the US found that older adults who followed a predominantly healthy diet stood a better chance of living longer than counterparts whose diets were higher in fatty foods and alcohol or sweets. and desserts.

A report on how they came to this conclusion after studying the eating patterns of over 2,500 Americans aged between 70 and 79 over a ten year period, is due to appear in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Lead author Dr Amy L Anderson and senior author Dr Nadine R. Sahyoun, both from the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Maryland, told the press that their findings suggest older adults who follow current guidelines to keep to a diet comprising mostly vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, fish and poultry, are more likely to have a better “nutritional status”, a higher quality of life and live longer than those whose diets are high in fat and sugar.

Anderson said there have been “surprisingly few” empirical studies of the links between dietary patterns and rates of death.

“Our study is the first to examine the dietary patterns of a relatively large and diverse US cohort of adults aged 70 and over, and explore associations of these dietary patterns with survival,” she added, explaining that another unique feature of their research was that they also “evaluated participants’ quality of life and their nutritional status through detailed biochemical measures”.

Such studies are becoming increasingly valuable as the leading causes of death shift from infectious diseases to chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease, both of which may be affected by diet. Plus there is the fact that estimates suggest the number of adults aged 65 and over worldwide in 2030 will be 973 million, which is more than double the 420 million figure from 2000.

The researcher grouped the participants into six groups depending on what they were mostly consuming out of 108 food items:

  • Healthy Foods (374 participants).
  • High-Fat Dairy Foods (332).
  • Meat, Fried Foods, and Alcohol (693).
  • Breakfast Cereal (386).
  • Refined Grains (458).
  • Sweets and Desserts (339).

The Healthy Foods group consumed relatively greater amounts of low-fat dairy foods, fruit, whole grains, poultry, fish, and vegetables, and relatively lower amounts of meat, fried foods, sweets, high-calorie drinks, and added fat.

The High Fat Dairy Foods group consumed a relatively higher intake of ice cream, cheese, 2% milk and yogurt, whole milk and yogurt, and other similar foods, and a relatively lower intake of poultry, low-fat dairy products, rice, and pasta.

After taking into account effects due to gender, age, race, where the participant data was collected, education, exercise, smoking and total calorie intake, the researchers found that:

  • The High-Fat Dairy Foods group had a 40% higher risk of mortality than the Healthy Foods group.
  • The Sweets and Desserts group had a 37% higher risk of mortality than the Healthy Foods group.
  • No significant differences in risk of mortality were seen between the Breakfast Cereal and the Healthy Foods groups and the Refined Grains and Health Foods groups.

Anderson said she and her colleagues concluded that:

“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.”

Sahyoun added “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.”

it is not clear whether the researchers took weight and body mass index (BMI) into account, and they made no comments to the press about whether being overweight may have contributed to higher mortality.

However, it is interesting that the two high risk food clusters, the High-Fat Dairy and the Sweets and Desserts, have something in common: they are both higher in saturated fats and trans fats.

A grant from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging helped pay for the study.

“Dietary patterns and survival of older adults.”
Amy L Anderson, Tamara B Harris, Frances A Tylavsky, Sara E Perry, Denise K Houston, Trisha F Hue, Elsa S Strotmeyer, and Nadine R Sahyoun.
Journal of the American Dietetic Association, due for publication in Volume 111, Issue 1 (January 2011).

Additional source: Elsevier Health Sciences (press release 22-Dec-2010), University of Maryland (press release 21-Dec- 2010).

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD