"The impact of diet on specific age-related diseases has been studied extensively, but few investigations have adopted a more holistic approach to determine the association of diet with overall health at older ages," the study's lead investigator, Tasnime Akbaraly, a researcher at France's national department of health (INSERM), said in a statement. "The 'Western-type' diet identified in our cohort is very close to the original 'Western' pattern defined in the American population, which has been shown to be associated with higher risk of [musculoskeletal] inflammation."
The study, which will be published in the May issue of The American Journal of Medicine, examined data from 3,775 men and 1,575 women in the United Kingdom (mean age: 51) gathered between 1985 and 2009 as part of the British Whitehall II cohort study. The researchers were trying to figure out the impact that diet quality and eating habits had in mid-life, hoping to find out which dietary factors would prevent premature death and also promote aging healthily.
They discovered that participants who stuck with the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) were more likely to live longer, healthier lives. The AHEI was originally created to provide guidelines intended to combat major chronic conditions, including cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, and those who adhered to those guidelines—eating lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish—had fewer incidents of cardiovascular problems and better physical and mental function by the time they reached middle age.
Participants who consistently chose to eat a "Western-type diet" with lots of fried foods, sugary desserts and sodas, processed foods, red meat, refined grains, condiments, and high-fat dairy products lowered their chances for aging well and being healthy later in life. They were more likely to have cardiovascular and joint problems and a lower chance for "ideal aging," which the researchers defined as "free of chronic conditions and high performance in physical, mental, and cognitive functioning tests."
The study does have a few loopholes, the researchers acknowledged. Since they used existing data from the Whitehall II study, the participants "are mainly white, office-based civil servants who are not fully representative of the British population," they explained in their study. They were also less likely to be younger, stick to a healthy diet, or be in better overall health. "This may lead to an underestimation of the observed associations." That means that while the study does confirm something we've known all along—that a junk-food diet isn't good for you—it does not necessarily confirm that the AHEI way of eating is what makes you stay healthy as you age.
“We showed that following specific dietary recommendations such as the one provided by the AHEI may be useful in reducing the risk of unhealthy aging, while avoidance of the ‘Western-type foods’ might actually improve the possibility of achieving older ages free of chronic diseases and remaining highly functional,” Akbaraly said. “A better understanding of the distinction between specific health behaviors that offer protection against diseases and those that move individuals towards ideal aging may facilitate improvements in public health prevention packages.”
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