Middle-aged women who follow a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet may live a healthier, longer life.

A few months ago, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) researchers released a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that indicates middle-aged women who follow a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet may live a healthier, longer life.

“Women with healthier dietary patterns at midlife were 40 percent more likely to survive to age 70 or over,” says lead researcher Cecilia Samieri, a postdoctoral fellow who conducted the study while at BWH. She is now a researcher at INSERM and Universite de Bordeaux, in France – the French equivalent of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The women who ate healthier not only lived longer, but they also thrived. They were less likely to have any major chronic diseases and more likely to have no impairment in physical functioning, mental health, or thinking skills. The research did not, however, prove a cause-and-effect link between better eating and longer life.

Dr. Samieri says she considers the 40 percent boost substantial. Those who closely followed the Mediterranean diet were more likely to live past age 70 without heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic diseases. They also were more likely to be classified as “healthy agers” than those who didn’t follow the diets closely or at all. However, she said, “only 11 percent of our participants were classified as healthy agers overall.”

For the study, Dr. Samieri and her colleagues evaluated the diet and medical records of more than 10,000 women who participated in the much larger landmark BWH Nurses’ Health Study. The women were in their late 50s or early 60s between 1984 and 1986, and were free of major chronic diseases. About 15 years later, they again provided information on their diet and their health.

“The Mediterranean diet is characterized by greater intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fish; lower intake of red and processed meats; moderate intake of alcohol; higher amounts of monounsaturated fats, mostly provided by olive oil from Mediterranean countries; and lower amounts of saturated fats,” she says. Saturated fats are found in baked goods, fatty meats, and other foods.

Although the study did not look at men, Dr. Samieri says previous studies on diet and healthy aging have found no gender differences, “so it seems reasonable to believe that the benefit would be similar.” She added, however, that the assumption remains to be proven.

Although the researchers did not study the effect of how long someone was on a diet, she says adopting it earlier rather than later is probably better. “The analysis suggests that the overall healthy diet patterns had a greater impact, rather than any individual food,” says Dr. Samieri.

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