Posted on Mon, 5 Oct 09
We are all aging. In western culture this reality is often ignored or associated with the negative stereotype of declining mental and physical function however the reality is aging can be embraced and accompanied by excellent health. While there is no magic elixir for longevity it is possible to extend life and delay illness with a healthy lifestyle. An important element of a health promoting lifestyle is a healthy diet, and a diet that is emerging as a path to optimal health throughout our lifespan is the Mediterranean diet. People who follow a traditional Mediterranean style dietary pattern not only live longer, but enjoy much healthier lives well into old age.
Where it began
Modern civilization emerged around the Mediterranean Sea, as we transitioned from nomadic life to farming we adopted dietary practices that have passed on through our culture. In the Mediterranean the use of foods such as olive oil, red wine, fish and an abundance of vegetables may have had a unique effect on longevity and health. The ancient Greeks preferred olives and olive oil as a source of fat over animal sources such as meat and dairy food. They deemed such foods unhealthy and eaten by barbarians (nomadic herders heavily reliant on animal foods). In the 1950s it was found that the people of Crete were amongst the longest lived and healthiest in the world. A subsequent study by the World Health Organization found that of the worlds countries with the highest life expectancy, four of them are Mediterranean countries (1,2).
A recipe for longevity
A healthy diet and lifestyle can promote optimal ageing by protecting against damage to our DNA. This damage occurs as a result of oxidative stress caused by factors such as a poor quality diet, lack of exercise and emotional stress. Such damage over time may result in the development of disease and shorten our lifespan (3).
Several nutritional components of the traditional Mediterranean diet may reduce oxidative DNA damage over time, protect against disease and increase longevity. In particular a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids (4), olive oil (5), modest red wine (6), low red meat consumption (7) and abundant plant foods such as herbs, spices, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables (8) have all been shown to prevent the development of disease. Importantly, this overall dietary pattern is associated with a higher intake of vitamins, minerals and disease fighting phytochemicals from plant foods (9,10).
Healthy aging is a reality
Several large studies across various countries world wide have recently found that people who eat close to the basic principles of a traditional Mediterranean diet have longer lives and are much less likely to suffer or die from diseases such as cancer and heart disease. A traditional Mediterranean diet may also protect against obesity, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cognitive decline, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease (1). While we may still be chasing the eternal “fountain of youth” in medicine it seems it has been in the grocery store all along.
1. Pérez-López FR, Chedraui P, Haya J, Cuadros JL. Effects of the Mediterranean diet on longevity and age-related morbid conditions. Maturitas. 2009 Aug 31. [Epub ahead of print]
2. Roman B, Carta L, Martínez-González MA, Serra-Majem L. Effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet in the elderly. Clin Interv Aging. 2008;3(1):97-109.
3. Skordalakes E. Telomerase and the benefits of healthy living. Lancet Oncol. 2008 Nov;9(11):1023-4
4. Kris-Etherton PM, Hecker KD, Binkoski AE. Polyunsaturated fatty acids and cardiovascular health. Nutr Rev 2004;62:414–26.
5. Trichopoulou A, Dilis V. Olive oil and longevity. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2007 Oct;51(10):1275-8
6. O'Keefe JH, Bybee KA, Lavie CJ. Alcohol and cardiovascular health: the razor-sharp double-edged sword. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2007 Sep 11;50(11):1009-14.
7. Sinha R, Cross AJ, Graubard BI, Leitzmann MF, Schatzkin A. Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Mar 23;169(6):562-71.
8. Minich DM, Bland JS. Dietary management of the metabolic syndrome beyond macronutrients.Nutr Rev. 2008 Aug;66(8):429-44.
9. Kant AK. Dietary patterns and health outcomes. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004 Apr;104(4):615-35.
10. Ornish D. Mostly plants. Am J Cardiol. 2009 Oct 1;104(7):957-8.