Harvard study reveals close relationship between midlife diet and healthy aging

Chicago (July 2, 2024) — We all want to age with grace, but a new study found that fewer than 1 in 10 people were able to live free of disease and maintain good physical, cognitive and mental health to age 70 and beyond. The study suggests that sticking to a healthy diet in midlife could increase your chance of achieving healthy aging. 

The research, based on data from over 100,000 people spanning 30 years, revealed that people who followed a healthy diet from their 40s onward were 43-84% more likely to be well-functioning physically and mentally at age 70 compared with those who did not.

“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 Anne-Julie Tessier, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “This suggests that what you eat in midlife can play a big role in how well you age.”

Tessier will present the findings at NUTRITION 2024, the flagship annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition held June 29–July 2 in Chicago.

In terms of particular foods, the researchers found that higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated fats, nuts, legumes and low-fat dairy were associated with greater odds of healthy aging, while higher intakes of trans fat, sodium, total meats, red and processed meats were associated with a lower odds of healthy aging.

While many previous studies have shown that a healthy diet can help to ward off chronic diseases, the new research is unique in its focus on healthy aging — defined not just as the absence of disease but the ability to live independently and enjoy a good quality of life as we grow 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.”

Researchers analyzed data from over 106,000 people going back to 1986. Participants were at least 39 years old and free of chronic diseases at the start of the study and provided information about their diet via questionnaires every four years. As of 2016, nearly half of the study participants had died and only 9.2% survived to age 70 or older while maintaining freedom from chronic diseases and good physical, cognitive and mental health.

The researchers compared rates of healthy aging among people in the highest versus lowest quintiles for adherence to each of eight healthy dietary patterns that have been defined by previous scientific studies. The strongest correlation was seen with the alternative healthy eating index, a pattern that reflects close adherence to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Participants in the top quintile for this dietary pattern were 84% more likely to achieve healthy aging than those in the bottom quintile.

Strong correlations were also found for the empirical dietary index for hyperinsulinemia diet (associated with a 78% greater likelihood of healthy aging), planetary health diet (68%), alternative Mediterranean diet (67%), dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) diet (66%), the Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay (MIND) diet (59%) and empirical dietary inflammatory pattern (58%). A somewhat more modest association was found for the healthful plant-based diet (43%).

“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.”

The ties between diet and healthy aging remained strong even when the researchers accounted for physical activity and other factors that are known to impact health. Tessier noted that each of the healthy dietary patterns was linked with healthy aging as a whole, as well as with the individual components of healthy aging, including physical health, cognitive functioning and mental health.

Given the study’s focus on dietary patterns in middle age, Tessier said that future research could help to elucidate the potential impacts of switching to a healthier dietary pattern later in life.  

Tessier will present this research at 10:24-10:36 a.m. CDT on Tuesday, July 2, during the President’s Oral Session: Abstracts of Distinction session in McCormick Place (abstract; presentation details).

Please note that abstracts presented at NUTRITION 2024 were evaluated and selected by a committee of experts but have not generally undergone the same peer review process required for publication in a scientific journal. As such, the findings presented should be considered preliminary until a peer-reviewed publication is available.

About NUTRITION 2024

NUTRITION 2024 is the flagship meeting of the American Society for Nutrition and the premier educational event for nutritional professionals around the globe. NUTRITION brings together lab scientists, practicing clinicians, population health researchers, and community intervention investigators to identify solutions to today’s greatest nutrition challenges. Our audience also includes rising leaders in the field – undergraduate, graduate, and medical students. NUTRITION 2024 will be held June 29–July 2, 2024 in Chicago. https://nutrition.org/N24 #Nutrition2024

About the American Society for Nutrition (ASN)

ASN is the preeminent professional organization for nutrition research scientists and clinicians around the world. Founded in 1928, the society brings together the top nutrition researchers, medical practitioners, policy makers and industry leaders to advance our knowledge and application of nutrition. ASN publishes four peer-reviewed journals and provides education and professional development opportunities to advance nutrition research, practice, and education. Since 2018, the American Society of Nutrition has presented NUTRITION, the leading global annual meeting for nutrition professionals. http://www.nutrition.org

Find more news briefs from NUTRITION 2024 at: https://www.eurekalert.org/newsroom/nutrition2024/home.