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Earlier healthy diets pave way for healthy aging, improved cognition

Earlier healthy diets pave way for healthy aging, improved cognition

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Key takeaways:

  • Results presented at NUTRITION shed light on the long-term benefits of adhering to a healthy diet in midlife.
  • One study showed benefits for global cognition and another highlighted general healthy aging.

CHICAGO — Adhering to a healthy diet by midlife can influence a patient’s quality of life in their senior years, including helping them stay mentally sharp for longer, according to research from the annual NUTRITION meeting.

Two new studies evaluated the long-term benefits of healthy eating, expanding on previous research that has mostly analyzed the short-term benefits of older patients eating well, according to press releases.



Kelly C. Cara, PhD, a recent graduate of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and colleagues analyzed data from 3,059 adults in the U.K. enrolled in the 1946 British Birth Cohort of the National Survey of Health and Development study. For more than 75 years, members of the cohort have taken tests and questionnaires to provide data on cognitive outcomes, dietary intakes and more.

Researchers found that global cognitive ability was closely associated with dietary quality. Just 7% of participants with high-quality diets had low cognitive ability over time. Meanwhile, roughly 8% of those with low-quality diets sustained high cognitive ability over time.

“These initial findings generally support current public health guidance that it is important to establish healthy dietary patterns early in life in order to support and maintain health throughout life,” Cara said in the release. “Our findings also provide new evidence suggesting that improvements to dietary patterns up to midlife may influence cognitive performance and help mitigate, or lessen, cognitive decline in later years.”

Dietary quality steadily improved throughout adulthood for most of the participants, but even small differences in diet quality in childhood laid the groundwork for dietary patterns in later life, the researchers found.

“This suggests that early life dietary intakes may influence our dietary decisions later in life, and the cumulative effects of diet over time are linked with the progression of our global cognitive abilities,” Cara said.

According to Cara, the most protective dietary patterns seem to be those “that are high in whole or less processed plant-food groups including leafy green vegetables, beans, whole fruits and whole grains.”

“Adjusting one’s dietary intake at any age to incorporate more of these foods and to align more closely with current dietary recommendations is likely to improve our health in many ways, including our cognitive health,” she said.

General aging

Another study by Anne-Julie Tessier, PhD, RD, and colleagues showed that adhering to a healthy diet in midlife can help increase patients’ chances for overall healthy aging to 70 years and beyond — something that fewer than one in 10 currently achieve.

Analyzing data from more than 106,000 people dating back to the 1980s, the researchers found that patients who adhered to a healthy diet starting in their 40s were between 43% and 84% more likely to be mentally and physically well-functioning at age 70. The connections remained after accounting for exercise and other factors that affect health.

“People who adhered to healthy dietary patterns in midlife, especially those rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, were significantly more likely to achieve healthy aging,” Tessier, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a press release. “This suggests that what you eat in midlife can play a big role in how well you age.”

Specifically, researchers observed an association between increased consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy and unsaturated fats with higher odds for healthy aging. In contrast, they found an association between higher intake of sodium, meats (total, red and processed) and trans fat with lower odds for healthy aging.

“Traditionally, research and derived dietary guidelines have focused on preventing chronic diseases like heart disease,” Tessier said in the release. “Our study provides evidence for dietary recommendations to consider not only disease prevention but also promoting overall healthy aging as a long-term goal.”

Each healthy dietary pattern evaluated in the study was connected to healthy aging to some degree, Tessier noted in the release.

Results also showed the alternative healthy eating index, which reflects the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, had the strongest correlation; patients who adhered most closely to this dietary pattern (in the highest quintile) were 84% more likely to achieve healthy aging compared with those in the lowest quintile.

For the other diets, the likelihood of health aging was:

  • 78% higher with the empirical dietary index for hyperinsulinemia diet;
  • 68% higher with the planetary health diet;
  • 67% higher with the alternative Mediterranean diet;
  • 66% higher with the DASH diet;
  • 59% higher with the Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay, or MIND diet;
  • 58% higher with the empirical dietary inflammatory pattern; and
  • 43% higher with the healthful plant-based diet.

Tessier said the connections between healthy aging and the planetary health diet were particularly noteworthy.

“This diet is based on the EAT Lancet Commission’s report which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins and healthy fats from sustainable sources,” Tessier said in the release. “The fact that it emerged as one of the leading dietary patterns associated with healthy aging is particularly interesting because it supports that we can eat a diet that may benefit both our health and the planet.”


  • Cara KC, et al. Associations between dietary pattern and global cognitive ability trajectories across the life course: Longitudinal analysis of the 1946 British birth cohort. Presented at: NUTRITION; June 29-July 2, 2024.
  • Tessier AJ. Optimal dietary patterns for healthy aging: Two large US prospective cohort studies. Presented at: NUTRITION; June 29-July 2, 2024.
  • Want to stay mentally sharp longer? Eat a healthy diet now. Published July 1, 2024. Accessed July 2, 2024.
  • What you eat at age 40 could influence your quality of life at 70. Published July 2, 2024. Accessed July 2, 2024.

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