The new data from a study of adults in the UK find that adherence to a 'Western-style' diet - including fried and sweet food, processed and red meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products - reduces a person's likelihood of achieving older ages in good health and with high functionality.
Led by Dr Tasnime Akbaraly from Inserm, France, the research team analysed data from the British Whitehall II cohort study which followed more than 5,000 men and women between 1985 and 2009.
"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," said Akbaraly.
"We examined whether diet, assessed in midlife, using dietary patterns and adherence to the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), is associated with aging phenotypes, identified after a mean 16-year follow-up."
Writing in the The American Journal of Medicine, the team reveal that that following the AHEI can double the odds of reversing metabolic syndrome, a condition known to be a strong predictor of heart disease and mortality.
"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," noted Akbaraly.
"A better understanding of the distinction between specific health behaviours that offer protection against diseases and those that move individuals towards ideal aging may facilitate improvements in public health prevention packages."
Akbaraly and her team analysed data from 3,775 men and 1,575 women with a mean age of 51 years from the Whitehall II study. Using a combination of hospital data, results of screenings conducted every five years, and registry data, the investigators identified mortality and chronic diseases among participants.
Outcomes at follow-up stage were classified into 5 categories:
- Ideal aging, defined as free of chronic conditions and high performance in physical, mental, and cognitive functioning tests – 4.0%
- Nonfatal cardiovascular event – 12.7%
- Cardiovascular death – 2.8%
- Noncardiovascular death – 7.3%
- Normal aging - 73.2%
The team then determined that participants with low adherence to the AHEI increased their risk of cardiovascular and non-cardiovascular death - finding that those who followed a 'Western-type diet' lowered their chances for ideal aging.
The AHEI is a validated index of diet quality, originally designed to provide dietary guidelines with the specific intention to combat major chronic conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.