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The secret ingredient to healthy aging: Your midlife diet

Your diet in midlife can shape your health after 70. It may sound surprising, but new research backs this claim. The study suggests that maintaining a healthy diet in your 40s could significantly increase your chances of healthy aging.

Less than 10% of individuals manage to maintain strong physical, cognitive, and mental health past the age of 70, but the keys to join this elite group may be on your plate.

Midlife diet and future health

The research, which was focused on an extensive data set of over 100,000 people tracked for 30 years, brought to light some fascinating insights.

It was found that individuals maintaining a healthy diet from their 40s were considerably more likely to enjoy a high-functioning physical and mental state at age 70. In fact, their likelihood of healthy aging was boosted by up to 84% compared to those who did not maintain a healthy diet.

“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 aging,” said Dr. Anne-Julie Tessier, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

The research provides an all-important clue: “Your midlife diet can significantly impact the quality of your aging process.”

Is there a magic diet for healthy aging?

Certain foods were linked to higher probabilities of healthy aging, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated fats, nuts, legumes, and low-fat dairy products. Conversely, high intakes of trans fat, sodium, total meats, and processed meats were linked to lower odds of healthy aging.

While many studies have explored diet’s impact on chronic diseases, this research uniquely focuses on healthy aging.

In this context, healthy aging is not merely the absence of disease but the ability to live independently while enjoying a good quality of life as one grows older.

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

Reimagining the dietary guidelines

The research analyzed data from over 106,000 people starting from 1986, with participants being at least 39 years old and free from chronic diseases. Unsurprisingly, only 9.2% of those surveyed had fully maintained their physical, cognitive, and mental fitness by age 70.

Based on eight healthy dietary patterns from previous scientific studies, some striking trends were noted.

The alternative healthy eating index, closely adhering to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, displayed the strongest correlation. People who followed this dietary pattern were 84% more likely to achieve healthy aging than those who did not.

The experts also found that a diet similar to the one in the EAT Lancet Commission’s report – the “planetary health diet” – had a substantial impact on healthy aging.

“A finding that stood out was the association between the planetary health diet and healthy aging,” said Tessier. “This diet is based on the EAT Lancet Commission’s report which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins and healthy fats from sustainable sources.”

“The fact that it emerged as one of the leading dietary patterns associated with healthy aging is particularly interesting because it supports that we can eat a diet that may benefit both our health and the planet.”

These findings held up even when factors such as physical activity, known to impact health, were taken into account. Each healthy dietary pattern was linked to overall healthy aging and to its physical, cognitive, and mental components.

The role of supplements in midlife diets

While the primary focus is on whole foods, supplements can also play a supportive role in a midlife diet aimed at healthy aging.

Certain vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants, have been shown to benefit cognitive and physical health.

As the focus of the study was on midlife dietary patterns, future research may help to clarify the potential impact of switching to a healthier diet later in life. However, one thing is made clear from the results of this study – the seeds of healthy aging are sown in midlife.

The research was presented at NUTRITION 2024, the flagship meeting of the American Society for Nutrition.


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