If you could significantly improve the odds of being physically able to take care of yourself as you got older, would you do it?
Well, researchers at Harvard have found a possible way of improving the odds by studying the health histories of more than 54,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study. For 18 years, scientists at the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health surveyed the women repeatedly about their health habits.
The nurses, who were in their mid-50s on average when the study started, also completed questionnaires about how they managed the normal physical demands of everyday life. They rated themselves on well they could bathe and dress themselves, walk distances, bend and kneel, climb stairs, lift groceries, and do other moderate or vigorous physical activities.
Diet and mobility
“We don’t know much about diet and mobility,” says Francine Grodstein of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and senior author of the study. “We wanted to look at diet patterns and try to learn how our overall diet impacts our physical function as we get older.”
So the researchers rated how healthy the women’s diets were based on how much they reported consuming vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, legumes, omega-3 and polyunsaturated fats; how little they consumed sugar-sweetened drinks, fruit juice, red and processed meats, trans fat, and sodium; and whether they drank less than two alcoholic beverages a day.
The women who ate the healthiest diets were 13 percent less likely to become substantially impaired in their ability to do everyday tasks during the 16 year study. The healthier their diets, the higher they scored on the physical function questionnaires.
Since this was an observational study (the researchers didn’t ask anyone to change what they were doing), it’s still possible that something other than the healthier diets could have been responsible for the benefits. However, this other something couldn’t have been differences in their weight, calorie intake, physical activity levels, mental health status, smoking history, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, or whether they had a heart attack, stroke, or diabetes. The researchers controlled for all these factors in their statistical analysis.
The findings of the study provide a “particularly compelling” rationale for us to eat a healthy diet, the study authors concluded.
Source: J. Nutr. 146: 1341, 2016.
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