Exercise and Dietary Habits in Midlife May Affect Health in Older Age

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Exercise and Dietary Habits in Midlife May Affect Health in Older Age

A healthy diet and routine physical activity in midlife may help prevent health problems decades in the future, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Researchers were interested in finding out whether following the U.S. government’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans could have an impact on whether people later develop metabolic syndrome — a cluster of health conditions that includes obesity, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose and abnormal blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels. To do this, they used data from the Framingham Heart Study, a decades-long project that has traced several generations of participants to look at how various habits and interventions affect their heart health and related health conditions. The latest study included 2,379 participants from that larger study, with an average age of 47 at the beginning of the analysis. Researchers evaluated how closely they had followed the latest government health guidelines on diet and exercise decades earlier, at midlife, and what effect this had on the later development of metabolic syndrome and related health conditions.

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Healthy diet, physical activity linked to better health in older age

As noted in an article on the study at Pharmacy Times, the researchers found that adhering to government lifestyle recommendations — including a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and getting at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week — in midlife had substantial benefits during participants’ senior years. Participants initially gave detailed food frequency questionnaires and wore an exercise-tracking device for eight days between 2008 and 2011. Among all participants, 28% met recommendations for both physical activity and dietary patterns, while 47% met recommendations for just diet or exercise. They also underwent a medical examination, which included giving blood samples for analysis and screening for several health conditions. This type of examination and screening happened again between 2016 and 2019.

The researchers found that among participants who met the dietary and activity recommendations at the earlier point in time, the risk of developing metabolic syndrome by the time of the later follow-up was 65% lower. Participants who met only physical activity recommendations were 51% less likely to develop metabolic syndrome, while those who met only dietary recommendations were 33% less likely to develop it. Just as importantly, the researchers observed a dose-dependent response from following recommendations in one category for participants who already met the other category’s recommendations — meaning that for participants who already met the physical activity recommendations, the closer they got to following the dietary guidelines, the lower their risk for developing metabolic syndrome. This strongly suggests that following the guidelines, rather than some unknown factor, was what led to the observed benefits.

The researchers concluded that based on these results, following a healthy diet and getting enough physical activity in midlife “may be required for optimal cardiometabolic health in later life.” Important limitations to this study include the fact that all participants were white adults, and that self-reporting was used to assess adherence to dietary guidelines. More research is needed to find out whether similar findings occur in other racial, ethnic or cultural groups, the researchers noted.

Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” “Top Tips for Healthier Eating” and “Cooking With Herbs and Spices.”

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Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

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A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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