Mediterranean Diet Helps Lower Death Rates

Seniors who combine a healthy lifestyle with a diet rich in fruits, veggies, and “good” fats, particularly olive oil, significantly increase their life expectancy, according to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

People who stick to such a plan, which includes the Mediterranean diet (search), eat a lot less "bad" saturated fat than those following a typical American diet.

Considerable medical evidence shows that what you eat and how you live have a profound impact on your overall health and risk for disease. If you are sedentary or smoke, you are more likely to develop heart disease, cancer, and die of other causes than those who live a healthier lifestyle. But few studies have investigated the effects of these factors on death rates.

For the study, researchers in the Netherlands observed the effect of a Mediterranean diet on 2,239 adults aged 70 to 90 for a period of 10 years. They measured the diet’s effects on death rate relating to cancer, heart disease, and other causes.

The researchers looked at the effect of this diet alone and in combination with three risk factors: smoking, exercise, and moderate alcohol use. Overall, those seniors adhering to the Mediterranean diet had a 23 percent lower risk of death from all causes.

Each risk factor alone was found to reduce the risk of death from all causes combined. For example, seniors who exercised at least 30 minutes every day lowered their risk of death by 37 percent. Nonsmoking seniorsreduced their risk by 35 percent. Seniors who drank alcohol moderately reduced their risk by 22 percent.

However, a senior who adhered to all of these lifestyle changes reduced his risk of death by 65 percent.

“A Mediterranean diet, rich in plant foods in combination with nonsmoking, moderate alcohol consumption, and at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day is associated with a significantly lower mortality rate, even in old age,” the researchers conclude in the journal report.

It should be noted that the results are for patients who have followed healthy habits for a number of years.

According to the American Heart Association, there's no one Mediterranean diet. The common Mediterranean dietary pattern, however, is characterized by a high consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grain products and olive oil. Dairy products, fish, and poultry are eaten in low or moderate amounts. Foods high in saturated fat, such as red meat, are rarely consumed.

By Kelli Miller Stacy, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Knoops, K. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 22, 2004; vol 292: pp 1433-1439. News release, JAMA. News release, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.