Too Old to Diet?

Throughout your life, and especially throughout your time with diabetes, you’ve most likely been told to watch your diet — to avoid excess sugar, fat, alcohol, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods. Chances are, this was sound advice, based on scientific studies that have associated certain eating patterns with diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and other medical conditions. But there may be a problem common to many dietary studies conducted up to this point: not properly accounting for different effects in different age groups. According to a recently published study, there may be a point in life after which good nutrition doesn’t do much good.

Published last month in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, the study followed 449 Pennsylvania senior citizens whose average age was 76.5 years. According to an article in Penn State Live, participants were followed for a total of five years. During the first 10 months, researchers would call periodically — four to five times throughout the study — and ask what the person had eaten in the last 24 hours. All participants were then placed in one of three categories based on their responses: the “sweets and dairy” category, for those who obtained the largest share of calories in their diet from baked goods, sweetened coffee and tea, and dairy products; the “Western” diet category, for those with a high intake of bread, eggs, fried food, alcohol, and soft drinks; and the “health-conscious” category, for those whose diets featured pasta or rice, fruits and vegetables, poultry, and nuts.

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Because this study was part of an ongoing collaborative effort between researchers and a health-care network, the researchers had easy access to participants’ medical records. At the end of the five-year study period, they made note of who had developed diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, or metabolic syndrome. When comparing this data with participants’ dietary categories, they found no relationship between dietary patterns and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, or death from all causes. Only hypertension was linked to dietary patterns, specifically the “sweets and dairy” category.

There are many limitations to this study, the most obvious of which may be that researchers scored participants’ diets based on only four or five days’ worth of data in the first 10 months of a five-year period. Participants’ diets might have changed over this period, and their initial accounts might not have been fully reliable. But according to Penn State researcher Gordon Jensen, as quoted in the Penn State Live article, most people maintain similar eating habits over a five-year period — and the age of this study’s participants doesn’t suggest that they’d be any more likely to develop a new routine. So it seems reasonable to conclude that the study’s findings have merit.

How, then, could poor eating habits have no effect on the development of chronic diseases? One explanation could be that if someone reaches an advanced age without having developed Type 2 diabetes or heart disease, it is likely that he is genetically predisposed not to get that disease, regardless of eating habits. Assuming that most participants maintained similar eating habits throughout their lives, not just during the five-year study period, the study would seem to support the importance of genes rather than the idea that there is a “finish line” age after which dietary habits no longer affect someone’s health.

Do you believe that healthy eating habits are important at any age, or is there a point after which they become less important? Have you changed your diet at an advanced age and seen benefits? Should there be different dietary considerations depending on whether you already have diabetes (or heart disease, or hypertension) or are trying to prevent it? Should people in their late 70’s be worried about getting a chronic illness, or does this mind-set reflect a denial of the reality of aging? Leave a comment below!

  • Pauline

    Fishing for comments? Well, most of your readers already have diabetes, right? I wouldn’t bother with this site if I didn’t. I’m a senior citizen, too. And I don’t see any relevance in this report. Now if it had included the effect of diet on seniors who already had diabetes, and maybe explored low carb eating as well, then I could have learned something.

  • jim snell

    I do not quite get what Pauline’s issue is.

    I am 65 and have had the t2 for over 30 years.

    I finally cleaned up my mess when I found myself rotting out. Yes I now do a low carb calorie restricted diet – 1200 calories and walk 2 miles.

    I got off the actos, starlix, glyburide as well as the heavy duty 75/25 insulin.

    Got my weight down, got hemorages off the eyes
    and glucose under control.

    My read is that not everything is fixable but much is getting the numbers down and it is never too late except when you are in the pine box.

    You want to leave earlier rotting out – your call.

  • Barbara Edwards

    People need to eat healthy no matter what the age. I learned several years ago that I’m one of those people who are very sensitive to carbohydrates. With the help of my endo, I cut way back on them (no more orange juice, no more bagels, etc.) and I immediately had more energy and nearly normal glucose readings. This was about 18 years ago. I am 67 and have type 2 insulin dependent (probably because I wasn’t diagnosed early enough and oral meds never worked). My endo helped me take control of my meds as well as diet and exercise, and I’m doing much better.

  • jim snell

    Barbara has great comments. I would suggest that aging may cause some decrease in insulin and some booster shots are in order.

  • Sharon

    I believe that eating healthy from the cradle to the grave is important. However, what is healthy for one person may not be healthy for another. I have friends who are vegetarian and do very well healthwise. About 13 years ago, I decided to give it a try. I lost some weight, they had a few strokes, and 3 years ago went into congestive heart failure and was diagnosed type 2 diabetic. I tried to remain vegan because I had read that diabetics to better on a vegetarian diet. I felt starved all the time, and my blood sugar levels remained high. About a year ago, I started adding meat back into my diet and my levels are lower now and I don’t feel starved anymore. As far as sweets and starches go I keep them to a minimum (may enjoy 3 or 4 times a month in small quantities). Everyone needs to find what works best for them and run with it. I agree with Pauline about the study. I read it, but not give it anymore thought. (I’m almost 68 years old.)

  • jim snell

    I agree with writers here that diet and healthy eating are a cradle to crave discipline. I was late on that train.

    I was born in late 40’s and got the “you better eat up all the food on your plate or else” routine.

    That attitude is outright dangerous healthwise in an age of 24/7 extensive refined food stuffs, grains, high fructose sugars coupled with low energy couch potato skills, entertainment and life styles.

    That is spelt type 2 diabetes and that is backed up by explosion of type 2 diabetes world wide.