That’s the results of a 15 year study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine today. The study, which began in the 1980s, analyzed data from 10,670 women who were mostly in their late 50s (median age of 59 years) and had no chronic diseases. Over the course of the study, the women’s mental and physical functioning and their dietary patterns were assessed. Those whose diet most resembled the Mediterranean diet had about a 40 percent greater chance of living beyond 70 without chronic diseases such as heart disease or diabetes and were more likely to be classified as “healthy agers” than those who didn’t follow the diets closely or at all. Healthy aging means having no major chronic diseases, no physical disabilities and no cognitive impairment.
The Mediterranean diet isn’t a hard and fast rule. After all, the people along the Mediterranean, the French, Spanish, Italians, Greeks and Middle Eastern countries all eat different foods. Instead each region takes advantage of food availability, seasonality and cultural preferences. The things they have in common are a greater reliance on plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains nuts, olives and olive oil (extra virgin). Preparation methods tend to be simple and only small amounts of saturated fats, sweets and meat are included. A moderate amount of alcohol (mainly red wine) is also included while fish and other seafood play a role at least a couple times per week. The diet isn’t just about food though. Mediterranean’s tend to eat their meals more leisurely, eat their largest meal at midday, enjoy meals with friends and families and lead active lifestyles.
Previous studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet may slow cognitive decline in older adults, reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a transitional stage between the cognitive decline of normal aging and Alzheimer’s and reduce the risk that MCI progresses to Alzheimer’s disease according to the Mayo clinic. These benefits are likely the result of improved vascular health. Research has also shown that following a Mediterranean diet can also reduce the incidence of cancer and mortality from cancer.
How do you get started on the Mediterranean diet? Some simple options are:
- Include more fruits and vegetables in your daily food intake (7-10 servings per day);
- Switch to whole grains;
- Use olive oil in place of butter or margarine;
- Choose fish or poultry over red meat and limit red meat consumption to a couple times per month;
- Choose low fat dairy products and try substituting goat or sheep cheeses for cow based dairy products; and
- Drink a glass of red wine (or purple grape juice) with dinner.
The Mayo Clinic has some easy recipes to get you started.
Individuals with health conditions should talk with their doctor before making major dietary changes.