Western diet reduces health in older age

25 April 2013

A Western-style diet reduces the chance of having good health and higher functionality in older age, according to a 15-year study of British adults published in the American Journal of Medicine. The Western diet consists of fried and sweet food, processed and red meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products.

The research team sought to identify dietary factors that can not only prevent premature death, but also promote ideal aging. They analyzed findings from the British Whitehall II cohort study, which suggest that following the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) can double the odds of reversing metabolic syndrome, a condition known to be a strong predictor of heart disease and mortality.

The AHEI, developed by the Harvard School of Public Health, 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.

The study followed 3,775 men and 1,575 women from 1985-2009. Using a combination of hospital data, results of screenings conducted every five years, and registry data, investigators identified mortality and chronic diseases among participants.

The outcomes at follow-up stage, classified into 5 categories were:

  • 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 study determined that participants with low adherence to the AHEI increased their risk of cardiovascular and noncardiovascular death.

“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,” says lead investigator Tasnime Akbaraly, PhD, Inserm, Montpellier, France. “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.”

“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. 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 T, et al. Does Overall Diet in Midlife Predict Future Aging Phenotypes? A Cohort Study. The American Journal of Medicine, Volume 126, Issue 5 (May 2013) published by Elsevier. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2012.10.028 .

Further information

The Harvardd School of Public Health Nutrition Source website: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/



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