Could the Mediterranean diet slow the ageing process? A new study suggests it could.
The Mediterranean diet – avoiding red meat and processed foods with a high intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, fish, olive oil and even the odd glass of red wine. Sound like a tasty lifestyle choice? Well there’s a huge bonus – it’s super healthy too.
The health advantages of the Mediterranean diet due to it being full of nutrients known as antioxidants have long been recognised. Following the diet has been associated with reduced inflammation within the body and has been shown to reduce risks of mortality and chronic diseases, like heart disease. Recently, scientists have discovered that this diet may also help to slow the ageing process by protecting your DNA.
The study, published in The British Medical Journal, found that the Mediterranean diet is linked with longer telomere length. Longer telomeres are thought to be an indicator of slower ageing and therefore, a longer life.
What is a Telomere?
Telomeres are DNA sequences found on the ends of your chromosomes (chromosomes contain your genes). Telomeres are like the plastic tips that protect the ends of your shoelaces, preventing your chromosomes from fraying at the ends and becoming damaged.
Your telomeres naturally shorten as you age – they will halve as you grow from a baby to an adult, then halve again as you enter your elderly years – however, telomeres seem to shorten at a slower rate in healthier people.
Shorter telomeres have long been linked with an increased chance of age-related disease and a reduced life span. Unhealthy habits may accelerate telomere shortening. Sugar-sweetened drinks, obesity and cigarette smoking have all been associated with people having shorter telomeres than usual for their age group.
The study, led by Immaculata De Vivo, Associate Professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, aimed to find out if a devotion to the Mediterranean diet was related to longer telomere length. Researchers assessed the eating habits of nearly 5000 healthy middle-aged women from within a long-term Nurses' Health Study. This ongoing study has followed the health of over 120,000 US nurses since 1976.
Participants took part in food questionnaires and blood tests which recorded their telomere length. All participants were given a diet score from 0-9, with a higher score indicating eating habits more similar to a Mediterranean diet. Results showed higher scores meant longer telomeres.
Every one-point shift in diet score was linked to a longer telomere length and seemed to add 1½ years of life.
Interestingly, when the scientists looked at individual parts of the Mediterranean diet – like eating more fruit or vegetables – they found no association with longer telomeres/longer life. This implies that a balanced Mediterranean diet, in general, is needed to gain the health advantages.
But there's no need to jump on the next Mediterranean cruise ship to try to live forever like ‘Peter Pan’. For a long and healthy life, you simply need to follow a balanced diet and eat well overall. As the study also showed that eating healthily, in general, was linked with longer telomeres and; therefore, longer life.
In a nutshell:
The Mediterranean diet seems to be linked with longer telomeres an indicator of slower ageing and therefore longer life. Unhealthy lifestyle factors such as sugary sodas, obesity and smoking accelerate telomere shortening. Studies indicate the Mediterranean diet could slow or even reverse this shortening.
Having shorter telomeres is linked with reduced life expectancy and increased risk of cancer, heart disease and other diseases.
Results showed that healthy eating, in general, was linked with longer telomeres.
Mediterranean diet linked to slower ageing Best Health UK
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M. Crous-Bou, T. T. Fung, J. Prescott, B. Julin, M. Du, Q. Sun, K. M. Rexrode, F. B. Hu, I. De Vivo. Mediterranean diet and telomere length in Nurses' Health Study: population-based cohort study. BMJ, 2014; 349 (dec02 5): g6674 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.g6674 [full article]
P. M. Nilsson. Mediterranean diet and telomere length. BMJ, 2014; 349 (dec02 8): g6843 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.g6843 [Introduction]