How Eating Right in Middle Age Can Set You Up For Long Life

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NEW ORLEANS — The foods you eat during middle age may affect how long you live, a new study finds.

Several food groups appeared to be linked to a lower risk of dying in the study participants about 20 years down the line, said Dr. Nilay Shah, an internal medicine resident at the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and the lead author of the study. Shah presented his findings here today (Nov. 13) at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions annual meeting.

These food groups were predominantly fruits, nuts, whole grains and vegetables, Shah added.

The findings suggest that it's important for people who are healthy and fairly young to be very mindful of their diet, Shah told Live Science. A person's diet earlier in life appears to play a role in their health later on, he said.

In the study, the researchers looked at data from about 11,000 men and women in Dallas who completed a three-day food diary at some point between 1987 and 1999. The people in the study were 47 years old, on average, when they started the study, and none of them had had a heart attack or stroke before the study began.

The researchers looked at how many of the participants died over an average follow-up period of 18 years. [The Odds of Dying from Shark Attacks, Tsunamis & Dozens of Other Causes]

Specific diets, such as the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet, were found to have no associations with a person's risk of death, Shah told Live Science. However, when the researchers looked at the data more closely, they found that individual components of these diets did play a role, Shah said. 

Shah and his colleagues found that following certain aspects of the Mediterranean diet — specifically, eating fruit, nuts and whole grains — was associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease over the study period. People who ate more than the median amounts of these foods had a lower risk of dying from heart disease than people who ate less than the median amounts, according to the study.

In addition, the vegetable component of the DASH diet was associated with a lower risk of death from any cause: The study participants who ate the highest amounts of vegetables had a lower risk of dying during the study period than those who ate the lowest amounts, the researchers found.

The DASH diet, or "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension," is recommended by the American Heart Association for lowering high blood pressure, or reducing the risk of developing high blood pressure in the first place. The diet plan is rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and includes low-fat dairy and lean meats, poultry and fish. The diet also emphasizes keeping your sodium intake low. [Why Is Too Much Salt Bad for You?]

Outside of specific food groups, the researchers also looked at how much added solid fats people ate. (Foods such as cakes and cookies and fried foods are high in added solid fats.) They found that the participants who ate the highest amounts of added solid fats had triple the risk of dying from any cause during the study period compared with those who ate the lowest amounts. The highest amount of added solid fat was defined as more than 34 percent of a person's daily caloric intake coming from added solid fat.

Shah noted that one limitation of the study was that the researchers assessed the participants' diets only one time, at the onset of the study. However, previous research suggests that people's diets during middle-age tends to persist for many years, Shah said.

The findings have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.