Most Benefits of Healthy Diet Disappear Over the Age of 75

Elderly Woman Smiles
Image Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuter

Here's some good news if you have a sweet tooth: diets high in sugar and fat may not have much of a health impact... if you are over the age of 75. According to a study conducted by researchers at Penn State University and the Geisinger Healthcare System, subjecting seniors to an overly restrictive diet may have little benefit to their health.

While obesity has been linked to a variety of health problems, like diabetes and heart disease, recent research suggests that overweight and mild obesity may actually have preventative benefits for the elderly. While elderly individuals are often thought of as frail, overweight may counteract that.

The study was part of the result of a decade-long survey of 20,000 older people. This study surveyed 449 of these individuals over the course of five years. The seniors were, on average, 76.5 years old at the beginning of the study.

To begin, the researchers called each of the seniors four or five times over the course of 10 months. Each time, they asked them to recount what they had eaten over the previous 24 hours. The individuals were split into three groups as a result of their nutritional habits: the "sweets and dairy" category, which was characterized by receiving most of their energy from items like baked goods, milk and dairy-based desserts; the "health-conscious" category, marked by foods like rice, fruit, fish and vegetables; and the "Western" diet, comprised of dishes like bread, fats and alcohol.

Next the researchers obtained the individuals' outpatient medical records in order to identify whether they developed diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or metabolic syndrome over the course of the following five years. They found that there was no correlation between any of those health conditions and diet, with the exception of high blood pressure, of which the "sweets and dairy" group had an increased risk.

"We don't know if the participants had been following these dietary patterns their entire adult lives, but we suspect they had been because people don't usually change dietary practices all that much," study author Gordon Jensen said in a statement. "The results suggest that if you live to be this old, then there may be little to support the use of overly restrictive dietary prescriptions, especially where food intake may already be inadequate. However, people who live on prudent diets all their lives are likely to have better health outcomes."

The study was published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging.

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