Most of your life, you’ve eaten French fries and washed them down with soft drinks. Your refrigerator is stocked with more cookies than carrots. But you’re now in the middle or latter stages of your life and have heeded the calling of the Golden Arches too many times. Now, you wonder whether it’s too late to make meaningful changes to your diet. You tell yourself the damage is already done, so why not eat for enjoyment rather than health? P.S. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Healthy food can taste delicious too. But, could it be too late to change your health trajectory through lifestyle and diet?
What Science Says About Late-Life Diet Change
According to a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine, there’s still time to upgrade your health even if you’re on the other side of 50. In the study, researchers analyzed the dietary habits of 10,670 women. The women had a median age of 59 years and were healthy at the beginning of the study. The researchers used questionnaires to assess women’s eating habits. Then, they followed the women for an average of 15 years to see how they fared.
The results of the study are good news for anyone late to the healthy diet scene. The researchers found that eating a higher quality diet during middle-age and late middle-age was strongly associated with better physical and mental health going forward. These results are consistent with another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2017. This study looked at death rates of 74,000 women and men who took part in other studies. The researchers focused on participants who had changed their eating habits within 12 years of the studies inception. These folks had made positive upgrades to their diet and were eating more fruits vegetables at the time the studies began.
When the researchers looked at death rates over the 12 years the studies ran, those who upgraded their diet had a lower risk of dying. In the study, even small diet upgrades were linked with a lower risk of death. That’s important since small changes are usually more sustainable than drastic dietary overhauls. Munching on one more fruit or vegetable each day is “doable” and can still have a positive impact on health. Small changes count!
Lifestyle Changes as a Whole
A healthy diet is an important component of a healthy lifestyle but it’s not the only one. Combining a healthy diet with an active, healthy lifestyle has synergy, according to a study published in the American Journal of Medicine. This study showed that munching on at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, staying a healthy body weight, not smoking, and exercising at least 2.5 hours per week reduced the risk of death by 40% relative to people who don’t lead a healthy lifestyle. So, you don’t need over-hyped detox cleanses or a special diet to reduce your risk of dying early. It’s back to basics – movement, an unprocessed diet, kicking the habit, and not letting your weight creep up on you. Find ways to manage stress and get quality sleep too. It all matters! And now studies show that age isn’t an excuse. Changing health habits for the better have an impact even if you’re past retirement. Plus, doing these things can make your retirement years more enjoyable!
This study didn’t distinguish between types of exercise. For many people, walking is the preferred form of exercise. But you need strength training to reduce age-related muscle loss and to protect against sarcopenia, the gradual increase in visceral fat that comes with aging. Sarcopenia contributes to frailty and metabolic problems, like insulin resistance. One of the best ways to prevent sarcopenia is to work your muscles against resistance. Add in high-intensity intervals as well to help keep visceral fat from gaining a foothold on your body and your health.
It’s More about Lifestyle than Genes
No doubt the genes we inherit play a role in the risk of developing certain diseases, but the link isn’t as strong as you think. Studies in twins show that genetics explains only 25% of disease risk while lifestyle accounts for 75%. The diet and lifestyle you lead even impacts the expression of the genes you inherit. For example, you may have inherited a tendency toward cardiovascular disease. But, if you exercise, eat a heart-healthy diet, don’t smoke, sleep enough, and manage stress, those “bad” genes may not be expressed. The ball is in your court!
It All Matters
You don’t have to radically change your diet and lifestyle to get health benefits. As these studies show, even small changes you make later in life can lower your risk of dying. A few more vegetables and a bit more movement can have a significant impact on your health irrespective of age. Don’t make it harder than it has to be. If you don’t have time to prepare fresh produce, buy frozen! Cook for an entire week on Sunday and freeze what you make for the rest of the week. Exercise at home so you don’t have to spend time driving to a health club. Exercise in segments – 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there. It all adds up at the end of the day. Realize that the time you spend nurturing your health is an investment, not a time sucker.
The Bottom Line
Even if you’re just starting your health journey and you’re older, it’s never too late to get the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Start small and build a foundation of health and wellness and it’ll help you stay fit and functional for the decades ahead. It’s worth it!
Ann Intern Med. 2013;159(9):584-591.
N Engl J Med 2017; 377:143-153 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1613502.
WebMD.com. “It’s Never Too Late to Live Healthily”
Sports Med. 2018 Feb;48(2):269-288. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0807-y.
Sports Medicine. February 2018, Volume 48, Issue 2, pp 269–288.