Common-sense keys to longevity emerge from new studies

Lifestyle: Combined with exercise, limited drinking and no tobacco, the Mediterranean diet appears to add years.

Medicine & Science

September 27, 2004|By John Fauber | John Fauber,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The secret to long life might be a Mediterranean-style diet with exercise and a little alcohol, according to a study likely to cause a gulp of uncertainty among Atkins-style dieters.

The study, one of the first to look at the individual and combined effects of diet and lifestyle in older people, found a 23 percent reduction in deaths over a 10-year period among those who followed a Mediterranean diet.

Similar reductions in deaths also were found among those who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol, primarily wine, at 22 percent lower; engaged in regular physical activity, 37 percent; and did not smoke, 35 percent.

Those who combined all four - diet, alcohol, exercise and not smoking - saw a 65 percent reduction in overall deaths, according to a report in last week's Journal of the American Medical Association.

For purposes of the study, which followed 2,339 people ages 70 to 90 from 11 European countries for 10 years, a Mediterranean diet was one that emphasized whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes, olive oil, fruits, vegetables and potatoes, but not meat and dairy products.

In the popular Atkins diet, red meat typically is not restricted. Carbohydrates, including from potatoes, many fruits, grains and alcohol, are cut sharply.

"The Atkins diet focuses on weight loss," said Kim Knoops, author of the Mediterranean diet study and a researcher with the division of human nutrition at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. "The aim of the Mediterranean diet is to maintain a stable weight."

The problem with the Atkins diet is that even though people can lose weight on it, it's difficult to stay on it for more than a year, said Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"For centuries, people have lived their lifetimes on the Mediterranean diet," said Rimm, who co-authored an editorial in JAMA accompanying the study.

In an interview, Rimm said the popular South Beach diet probably comes the closest to a true Mediterranean diet, at least once people get past the initial weight-loss phase.

His editorial noted that even though science might not fully understand how lifestyle affects health, enough is known to take action now:

"As a society, the United States spends billions on chronic disease treatments and interventions for risk factors. Although these are useful and important, a fraction of that investment to promote healthful lifestyles for primary prevention among individuals of all ages would yield greater benefit."

In a separate study of 180 people with metabolic syndrome - a combination of risk factors for heart disease that include abdominal fat, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and bad cholesterol levels - less than half of those on a Mediterranean diet for two years still had the syndrome, vs. more than 80 percent on a low-fat diet.

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