What people eat at 40 could affect health decades later, Harvard study shows

The research study, presented at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual meeting in Chicago, has found that individuals who maintain a healthy diet from their 40s can experience improved physical and mental functioning at age 70. This research was led by Anne-Julie Tessier, a research associate at the Department of Nutrition at T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and it is based on data from more than 100,000 people from Harvard’s Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.

Over the span of 30 years, researchers discovered that a higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated fats, nuts, legumes, and low-fat dairy products is associated with a greater likelihood of healthy aging, whereas higher intakes of trans fat, sodium, total meats (including processed meat), are linked to a lower likelihood of healthy aging.

The study uniquely focused on healthy aging, defined not only as the absence of disease but also the ability to live independently and enjoy a good quality of life as people grow older. Researchers noted that this study serves to inform public health recommendations by emphasizing the importance of diet in midlife for promoting overall healthy aging.

Researchers analyzed data from over 106,000 participants who were at least 39 years old and free of chronic diseases at the study’s outset. Participants answered questionnaires every four years about their diet, and by 2016, nearly half had died, with only 9.2% surviving to age 70 or older while avoiding chronic diseases and maintaining good physical, cognitive, and mental health.

Participants in the top quintile for the alternative healthy eating index, which reflects close adherence to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, were 84% more likely to achieve healthy aging compared to those in the bottom quintile. Various diets also showed strong correlations with healthy aging, such as the hyperinsulinemia diet, planetary health diet, alternative Mediterranean diet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay (MIND) diet, and the empirical dietary inflammatory pattern. The association with healthy aging was somewhat more modest for the healthful plant-based diet.

Future research may help to understand the potential impacts of switching to a healthier diet later in life. Kane, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, suggested consulting with a registered dietitian to adapt eating habits to align more closely with these healthy patterns. The study offers insight into specific dietary patterns that have the greatest health impact and highlights the importance of a healthy diet across the lifespan for healthy aging and living independently as people grow older.

.st1{display:none}See more