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Diet and Aging
Next week everyone will be working on their New Year's resolutions. I have read estimates that as high as 75% of people will resolve to lose weight or eat better. Certainly changing the way you eat is a good way to lose weight but there's other great reasons. Recently I was interviewed about the effects of diet on the ageing process. Some of this you may have read in past columns but when it is all taken together the research is pretty compelling.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Prevent Cellular Aging
Your cells are constantly dying and being replaced by new cells, which are created by cell division. Telomeres are DNA sequences, and multiples of these telomeres form a protective cap on the ends of certain chromosomes. As these chromosomes are divided to create new cells, one or more of these telomeres are stripped from the ends of the chromosomes, which eventually leads to the breakdown of the chromosome and cellular death.

Eat Less, Have a Younger Heart
Research has shown that eating fewer calories decreases the risk of heart disease. While there are also theories that calorie restriction can slow the effects of aging, none have yet been proven. Dr. Timothy Meyer and his colleagues (JACC. 2006; 47:398-401) looked at the question of what effect reducing calories might have on the heart by evaluating a group of 25 people who had been following a calorie restricted diet.


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Living Longer and Healthier

Quinoa Tabbouleh, full of whole grains and vegetables

One of my favorite patients likes to say, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself!" He has a few chronic health conditions, but in many ways he's pretty lucky: he's in his late 70's and still working part time at his family business, taking care of himself at home, and in general still living a very full life.

But other patients are not so lucky. In their older years they need daily home health care because they can no longer perform functions of daily life like walking more than a few blocks or pushing a vacuum cleaner. Some are tethered to an oxygen tank or are unable to do things they used to enjoy because of Parkinson's. Still others are physically fairly healthy but get confused easily, or worse, are likely in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease.

It's one thing to live a long time, but you want your later years to be as enjoyable in their way as your earlier years. The good news is that it appears that eating healthier now will not only help you live longer and help you avoid specific conditions, it appears to contribute to greater overall well-being - both physically and mentally - in old age.

A team of researchers from Harvard and the University of Bordeaux, France, made use of information gathered through the Nurses' Health Study, a long-term, large-scale study of over 120,000 female nurses that started in 1976 and continues through the present. For this particular study the researchers limited themselves to women who were 70 years or older in 1995 and had participated in both a quality of life survey as well as a measure of mental acuity (Ann Intern Med 2013;159(9):584-591). Using dietary questionnaires that had been gathered every four years since shortly after the start of the overall study, the scientists were able to correlate the women's dietary quality in middle age with their mental and physical health and quality of life in old age.

Interestingly, of the over 10,000 included in this subset of the Nurses' Health Study, only 11% of them were considered "healthy agers," or those with no mental or physical limitations. Fully one-third of the women had both at least one chronic disease and at least one limitation in the cognitive, physical, or mental health areas.

The researchers used the Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010 (AHEI2010), a dietary measure similar to the Mediterranean Diet but including such Western peculiarities as trans-fats and sugar-sweetened beverages, to compare the diets of the "healthy agers" with those considered "usual agers." Those women with the highest dietary scores in midlife, according to the AHEI2010, were 40% more likely to enjoy healthy aging than those with the lowest dietary scores.

What this means for you

Sure, you might be struck by a car or die of some other accident, but wouldn't you like to ensure that if you do live to old age, you're one of those enjoying your life to the fullest? Read our How to Eat Healthy series for a simple, straightforward guide to improving your diet, living longer, and living healthier.

First posted: November 6, 2013