Eating for Health: Mediterranean diet and lifestyle change halves death risk

Individuals 70 to 90 years old who adhered to a Mediterranean-type diet and several healthy lifestyle habits had a more than 50% lower death rate than those who did not, according to a new study. Dietary patterns and lifestyle factors are associated with death from all causes – coronary heart disease, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer – but few studies have investigated these factors in combination.

Researchers at Wageningen University, the Netherlands, investigated the single and combined effect of a Mediterranean diet, being physically active, moderate alcohol use, and nonsmoking on all-cause and cause-specific death in European elderly individuals. A Mediterranean diet refers to one that is rich in plant foods and fish, low in meat and dairy products, and with a high ratio of monounsaturated fatty acids to polyunsaturated fatty acids. The study participants included 1,507 apparently healthy men and 832 women, aged 70 to 90 years in 11 European countries.

The researchers found that adhering to a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 23% lower risk of all-cause death; moderate alcohol use, a 22% lower risk; physical activity, a 37% lower risk; and nonsmoking, a 35% lower risk. Similar results were observed for death from coronary heart disease, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.

Having all four low risk factors lowered the all-cause death rate by 65%. In total, 60% of all deaths, 64% of deaths from coronary heart disease, 61% from cardiovascular diseases, and 60% from cancer were associated with lack of adherence to this low-risk pattern.

JAMA, Sept 21, 2004