Aging is a process that most of us aren’t too pleased about, especially when we are getting towards our later years. But, aging doesn’t have to be so significant if we can stay healthy.
Throughout society, there has been this huge focus on how we can age well.
Sometimes that focus is on keeping our looks but other times the emphasis is entirely on health. In these discussions, a common theme is what we eat and drink. After all, our food does have large impacts on our bodies.
In fact, many of us tend to underestimate just how significant food can really be.
So, if you want to stay healthy as you age, what food should you be eating.
Well… a fairly recent research study (Samieri et al., 2014) sheds some important light onto this topic.
The Study Itself
In this paper, the authors looked at data from the Nurses’ Health Study. The Nurses’ Health Study was a large study that collected data (including dietary information) on 13,818 women between 1984 and 1986, and then followed up with participants 15 years later, looking at various components of aging.
The authors of this particular paper were interested in the effects that flavonoids and looked at data for the intake of the 6 key subclasses of flavonoids.
Flavonoids are a type of compound that comes from plants. They are important antioxidants for humans and they have also been associated with a range of health benefits. Often those benefits are associated with a specific class of flavonoid or even specific compounds (1)
They then looked at the levels of flavonoid consumption for participants that survived until at least 70 years of age.
As part of their analysis, the authors defined healthy aging as: Surviving to older ages free of major chronic diseases and maintaining good cognitive, physical and mental health
To find out which participants aged in a healthy manner, the authors had to look at the outcomes of various surveys and tests done as part of the Nurses’ Health Study. This included cognitive testing that was done via interview and indications of the activities that participants were able to complete.
Approximately 11% of the participants in the study met the criteria for healthy aging (1,517 women).
As part of their analysis, the authors broke up flavonoid intake into four groups (quintiles) based on consumption and compared them. The authors found that the women in the lowest intake quintile had a significantly lower chance of aging in a healthy manner compared to those in the highest quintile.
In other words, the 25% of participants that consumed the least amount of flavonoids had a lower chance of aging healthy than the 25% of participants that consumed the most flavonoids.
The authors also noted that there were significant effects observed for the following subclasses, but not for the other subclasses:
These compounds are found in a range of natural products, including fruit and vegetables.
Strengths and Limitations of the Study
The key strength of this study was the large sample size. The authors were able to look at data for more than 13,000 women, which is an impressive number. Having a large sample size like this helps to account for the variation between one person and the next.
It also helps to reduce the chance that external factors caused the observed results.
Another strength of this study is that there has already been a large amount of research into the health benefits of various types of flavonoids and even research into mechanisms for these benefits. This research helps to support the results of the current study.
Aside from the fact that this was an observational study, one limitation of the research was that it was cohort-based. This means that the researchers followed a specific group of people over time.
That design does have a range of strengths but one of its limitations is that the design ignores differences between cohorts. For example, the initial assessment of the population was conducted in 1984-1986.
Since that point in time, society has changed dramatically, as have the types of food that people consume. So, people who are middle-aged now are subject to a range of different environmental influences as the participants in the study.
Likewise, they may eat different food and get their flavonoids from different types of food.
There is also a second limitation with the sample.
That limitation is that the participants were all women, were mostly white healthcare professionals and tended to have higher levels of education than the general population. As such, the outcomes of the study are not immediately generalizable to the public as a whole. For example, it is likely that members of the study were more likely to take care of their health than the general population.
These issues do not negate the outcomes of the research study, but it does suggest that other types of research are needed to confirm the observed results. Likewise, research needs to consider a broader population than the one included in this study.
Implications of the Study
This study did not highlight a specific type of food as being beneficial to aging. Instead, the study looked at flavonoid compounds. The association between flavonoids and healthy aging strongly suggests that women need to be consuming a significant amount of these to promote healthy aging.
The same is probably true for males, even though the outcomes of this study are limited to females.
Fruits and vegetables, along with tea and wine are key sources of flavonoids in the human diet (2). The authors also commented that oranges, berries, apples and onions all represented good sources of the compounds that they found associated with healthy aging.
Overall, the outcomes of the study support the advantages of having a healthy diet that is high in natural foods, including fruit and vegetables.
Many people choose to focus on smoothies for some of these ingredients, such as this Anti-Aging Banana Berry Smoothie from The Real Food Dietitians or these Anti-Aging Smoothie Recipes from Citron Limette.
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