Once again, the Mediterranean diet is winning out in the diet wars - this time for both physical and brain health. A large new study finds that women who follow a healthy diet during middle age have more than 40 percent greater odds of surviving past the age of 70 with no chronic illness, physical impairments or memory problems. In other words, the kind of spry old age we all hope to have.
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For this study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers reviewed dietary surveys of 10,670 women in their late 50s and early 60s who took part in the long-running Nurses' Health Study. Researchers followed the women over the next 15 years. They gave them mental tests, evaluated their ability to move and walk freely, and kept track of common chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, kidney failure and Parkinson's. The researchers scored the women based on their diet and found that women who followed the Mediterranean diet had 46 percent greater odds of healthy aging. Previous research has found that the Mediterranean-style diet lowers risk for cancer and heart disease, but this study is one of the first to investigate the link between diet and 11 common chronic diseases as well as brain health.
A number of studies have showed the brain benefits from individual nutrients and foods common in this diet - omega-3 fatty acids, fruits and vegetables, plus moderate alcohol - but this study found an even greater benefit when all of these were consumed together, said lead researcher Cécilia Samieri of Harvard Medical School. That suggests that "overall healthy patterns had a greater impact than any individual component," she wrote in an email from France.
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The Mediterranean diet includes lots of vegetables (excluding potatoes), fruits, nuts, whole grains, legumes and fish plus alcohol (often red wine) in moderation. It has more of the healthy fats from olive oil and other sources and fewer unhealthy fats from butter, cheese and red meat. It includes few red or processed meats.
Samieri said the researchers didn't explore why the Mediterranean diet is so helpful for healthy aging, but because they adjusted the statistics to account for the women being overweight and for having high cholesterol and high blood pressure, other biological mechanisms may be involved. Samieri speculated that the diet may help lower inflammation and physiological stress on the body, which are both linked with most common chronic diseases and health problems in older people.
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We asked Samieri if she eats a Mediterranean diet when she is at home in Bordeaux. "Of course!" she wrote. "In addition to fruits, vegetables, fish and whole-grain products, I would recommend using olive oil as a main fat source for cooking and seasoning at home." We didn't ask her but assume that she must also have plenty of opportunity to add excellent red wine to her diet. In moderation, of course.
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