Eating a Mediterranean diet in your 30s, 40s and 50s will prime your body to be fit and mobile in old age, a study has found.
Researchers looked at the diets of 969 British men and women whose lifestyles had been monitored since they were born in March 1946.
At four points in their adult lives, starting at the age of 36, their eating habits were compared with standard measures of mobility and fitness when they were in their 60s.
People who ate more fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals – akin to the Mediterranean diet – fared far better in physical tests than those who ate highly processed foods – as one would on a Western diet.
Researchers at the University of Southampton tracked the diets of 969 men and women from their 30s into their late 60s. They found those on a Mediterranean diet were more mobile later
Lead scientist Professor Sian Robinson, from the University of Southampton, said: ‘Improving the quality of your diet can have a beneficial effect on health whatever your age.
‘However, this study suggests that making good dietary choices throughout adulthood – by cutting down on highly processed foods and incorporating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains into your diet – can have a significant beneficial effect on strength and physical performance later in life, helping to ensure a much healthier old age.’
The Western diet is loosely defined as one full of fatty and sugary foods, such as burgers, fries and soda.
People often eat foods that are high in saturated fats, red meats, ’empty’ carbohydrates, and greasy food.
They have a lower-than-advised intake of wholegrains, seafood, lean proteins and fresh vegetables.
The diet has been linked to things such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, colorectal cancer and dementia – and has been credited with increasing the rates of all these diseases in the Western world.
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean diet has long been tied to longevity and good physical health. The diet is rich in omega-3s from olive oil and fish, antioxidants from legumes, anti-inflammatory properties in fruit, and fiber in wholegrains.
All of those major food groups have been shown to reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia, for a number of reasons.
The first reason is to do with inflammation of the arteries: it is believed that lower inflammation in the body reduces plaque build-up and inflammation in the brain, and keeps a healthy flow of oxygen moving through the body and brain.
The second reason relates to gut health: increasingly, we are seeing evidence that our gut health influences all aspects of our body – from our brains to our muscles. This study adds to that mounting evidence.
Three fitness tests were employed that involved rising from a chair, ‘up-and-go’ standing and walking, and balance.
Compared with those who had eaten a poorer diet all their adult lives, healthy-eating participants performed better in each test.
There was also evidence of enhanced performance in two measures, chair rise speed and standing balance time, among participants whose diets had improved across adulthood.
Professor Cyrus Cooper, director of the Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit (LEU) at the University of Southampton, said: ‘The link between dietary patterns and frailty in older people will open the door to effective interventions against the age-related decline in musculoskeletal function which is such a growing cause of disability in ageing populations worldwide.’
For the chair rise test, researchers timed how long it took for a participant to stand up and sit down again 10 times in a row.
The up-and-go test involved rising from a chair, walking three metres at normal pace, returning to the chair, and sitting down.
To test balance, the scientists recorded how long a participant could stand on one leg with eyes closed.
The findings appear in The Journals of Gerontology: Series A.