Staying healthy in middle age slows down the ageing process, study shows


Senior couple outside apple picking

The importance of a healthy, balanced diet and exercise regime are well-known, but the extent to which such a lifestyle can benefit individuals in the long-term is still coming to light.

For example, a new study now suggests that people who eat healthily from their thirties are as fit as those a decade younger by the time they reach traditional retirement age – while living off junk food increases the risk of ending up in a care home and dying early. This suggests that making healthy lifestyle choices in middle age is just as important as looking after yourself in both the early and latter stages of life.

The research

Scientists gathered data on eating patterns over the course of approximately 30 years, before correlating their findings with people’s performances in tests to measure levels of physical decline. These included how quickly they could stand up from a chair, how quickly they could get up and walk three metres and how long they were able to stand on one leg with their eyes closed.

Of the 969 men and women who took part, it was found that those who had consistently eaten the healthiest diets – high in fruit, vegetables and whole grains and low in white bread, sugar and processed meats – performed much better in the tests once they reached their sixties, completing an extra two chair rises per minute when compared to their counterparts. Professor Cyrus Cooper, director of the Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit (LEU) at the University of Southampton, said:

“They are ahead by a decade in terms of physical performance – a person with a good diet is going to have the performance of someone ten years earlier. That’s substantial… This is the first study that’s showed that overall dietary pattern – high in fruit and vegetables and low in saturated fat – has benefits in terms of physical performance.”

Woman riding bike at the beach

He added that those with the least healthy diets faced twice the risk of hospitalisation, more falls and fractures and a “premature mortality.”

“Even if you’re a McDonalds-and-chips person in middle age, if you switch to a healthier pattern, you gain some benefit but not all of it. The horse has not bolted so far that there’s no point doing any better.”

Professor Cooper’s co-author, Lead scientist Professor Sian Robinson, also said:

“Improving the quality of your diet can have a beneficial effect on health whatever your age. However, this study suggests that making good dietary choices throughout adulthood… can have a significant beneficial effect on strength and physical performance later in life, helping to ensure a much healthier old age.”

These findings come after a group of doctors and academics wrote in the journal BMJ yesterday that older people must exercise more to stave off frailty and the need for expensive social care.