Loose Women: Dr Hilary discusses how to live longer
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The ageing process can be ruthless, which makes steps to mitigate its worst effects critical. The role diet plays in providing a buffer against the risk of death has been explored in numerous studies. One of the most notable suggested that closer adherence to the Mediterranean diet as we age can drastically reduce the risk of death from all causes.
The Mediterranean diet varies by country and region, so it has a range of definitions.
But in general, it’s high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. It usually includes a low intake of meat and dairy foods.
“We all know that [the] Mediterranean diet is good for health, but there are few studies focusing on the elderly,” said Marialaura Bonaccio, an epidemiologist at the Mediterranean Neurological Institute, IRCCS Neuromed, and first author of the study.
Ms Bonaccio and her colleagues set out to fill this gap in knowledge.
They pored over the health and diet of 5,200 individuals aged 65 and over from the Molise region in Italy, who were recruited as part of a larger study between 2005 and 2010, and followed up until 2015, during which time 900 deaths occurred.
Participants completed a food questionnaire reflecting their diet in the year before signing up, and each was given a score for how close their diet was to the Mediterranean diet on a 0-9 scale.
The results revealed that those who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet were also more likely to undertake more physical activity in their free time.
When factors including age, sex, activity levels, socioeconomic status, smoking and BMI were taken into account, those with a high adherence to the diet (scoring 7-9 on the scale) had a 25 percent lower risk of any cause of death than those who only scored 0-3.
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What’s more, a one point increase in adherence to the diet was linked to about a six percent drop in the risk of death from any cause.
No clear links were seen for specific causes of death, such as cancer or cardiovascular mortality, although there were some signs of a reduction in risk of coronary artery disease or cerebrovascular mortality, and mortality from “other causes”.
The team drilled down into the impact of specific components of the Mediterranean diet, in a bid to further understand what underpins this association.
They looked at changes to the reduction in risk of death associated with a two-point increase in adherence to the diet.
The results show that even when individual items are subtracted, the association remains strong, but that a rise in saturated fats, or the loss of fish, loss of a moderate amount of alcohol or fewer cereals, appear to have some of the biggest effects in reducing the size of the benefit.
The team acknowledged that the study cannot prove the Mediterranean diet is responsible for the effect; it only reveals a link.
Also, self-reports of food intake are liable to errors, and participants were only asked once about their diet and other areas of their life.
Nonetheless, the team suggested the diet could provide a necessary boost to life expectancy.
The researchers pointed out that their conclusions were backed up by an analysis that included another six studies focusing on older people which, taken together, suggested a five percent drop in risk of death from all causes with every one point better adherence to the Mediterranean diet.
“If you start a good healthy lifestyle when you are young, probably your benefit will be even greater,” said Bonaccio, “But even if you are old and you start having a healthy lifestyle including diet you can [live longer].”
You can make your diet more Mediterranean-style by:
- Eating plenty of starchy foods, such as bread and pasta
- Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Including fish in your diet
- Eating less meat
- Choosing products made from vegetable and plant oils, such as olive oil.
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