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Fiftysomething Diet: Boosting Your Longevity Odds

Researchers say the latest numbers speak for themselves: The better you eat, the longer you live

By Maureen Callahan

Studies keep popping up to report new findings about how food, a specific nutrient or overall diet can improve health. But changing how you eat isn’t always easy.

Here’s a brief look at some of the key figures revealed in recent research on fiftysomethings. Maybe the numbers will motivate you to improve your diet — and quality of life — in the years to come.

  • 1 point  Men and women with severe vitamin B12 deficiency scored one point lower in mental sharpness in the Mini-Mental State Examination, part of a 2012 Tufts University Study, compared to people who had higher levels. The exam is the most commonly used instrument for screening cognitive function. The test, made up of questions and tasks, takes about 10 minutes to complete. Scores range from 1 to a perfect high of 30. The Tufts study, conducted over an eight-year period, raises the concern that some cognitive decline may be the result of an inadequate supply of vitamin B12 in older adults.

Suggested diet strategy: Eat B12-rich foods, like meats, poultry and eggs. Because many older adults have trouble absorbing the vitamin, consider adding a B12 supplement or eating B12-fortified foods. RDI is 2.4 mcg (micrograms) for anyone — male or female — over the age of 14. Don't worry about taking too much. Excess B12 is usually removed in the urine.

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  • 1.6 percent The amount of belly-fat shrinkage among Penn State study participants who used canola oil (rich in monounsaturated fats) versus ones that used a vegetable oil blend (low in monounsaturated fats) over a four-week period. All participants were at risk for metabolic syndrome. The 2013 study was presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions in New Orleans in March. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, a high blood-sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur simultaneously, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Suggested diet strategy: Cook with vegetable oils rich in monunsaturated fatty acids, like canola and olive oil, instead of corn or safflower or vegetable oil blends. Other good sources of monos: nuts, seeds and avocados.

  • Two-Fold The risk of developing type 2 diabetes doubles if you eat fast as opposed to slowly savoring a meal, according to a 2013 study in the journal Clinical Nutrition. Researchers followed 234 participants newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and compared them with 468 non-diabetics to track their self-reported speed of eating. Check out Science Daily’s report on the study for more details.

Suggested diet strategy: To paraphrase an old song, "Slow down, you eat too fast. You’ve got to make the mealtime last."

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  • 9 pounds Women who scan food labels weigh, on average, about nine pounds less than women who don’t read labels, according to the latest National Health Interview Survey of more than 25,000 Americans.

Suggested diet strategy: Compare the nutrition information of packaged foods and opt for products that are lower in calories and sugar and higher in fiber. For example, if one cereal has 3 grams of sugar per serving and a second option has 11 grams, opt for the first choice.

  • 12 percent The total cancer risk declined 12 percent among 15,000 men over the age of 50 who took multivitamin supplements in a 2012 Boston study. One notable exception: Taking multivitamins had no impact on the risk of developing prostate cancer.

Suggested diet strategy: Pop a quality multivitamin every day; Consumer Labs offers a free review of available products. And stay tuned for more reports, including studies focused on women, to confirm that this simple strategy is as beneficial as early research indicates.

  • 17 percent The odds of a stroke dropped 17 percent among 37,000 Swedish men aged 49-75 when they ate about 2 ounces of milk chocolate (1/3 cup chocolate chips) per week over the course of 10 years, according to a 2012 study in Neurology. Researchers suspect antioxidants called flavonols are the likely reason. But a smaller, unrelated 2013 study suggests another potential mechanism, one that allows chocolate — both dark and light varieties — to have a positive impact on cerebral blood flow.

Suggested diet strategy: Break up a small 2-ounce chocolate bar (dark or milk) and eat it throughout the week.

  • 76 percent The risk of dying from cardiovascular disease plummets by more than three-quarters if you pair healthy eating habits with at least five of six strategies recommended by the American Heart Association. They are: don't smoke, stay physically fit, maintain a healthy weight, keep blood pressure at 120/80 or lower, be sure total cholesterol is less than 200 and make sure your fasting blood sugar level remains below 100.

Suggested diet strategy: Fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits and divide the remaining half evenly with whole grains and lean proteins, as depicted by Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate.

Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner. Read More
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