It is never too late to eat well and exercise every day, according to a quartet of new studies that found healthy lifestyles can produce dramatic benefits for the body and mind even among the elderly.
Although a plethora of research has demonstrated that a good diet and regular physical activity are potent promoters of health, the four studies released Tuesday found the effects extend into old age, sharply reducing the risk not only of heart disease and cancer, but even of dementia.
"A lot of times older people get the idea that, "What's done is done. It's too late for me now,' " said Meir Stampfer of the Harvard School of Public Health, who co-wrote an editorial accompanying the research in today's Journal of the American Medical Association. "This says, "It's not too late to have a big influence.' "
One of the studies found that elderly people who ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, drank alcohol moderately and avoided smoking slashed by more than half their risk of dying from any cause, while one found the same diet improved blood vessel function and reduced inflammation. The other studies produced the strongest evidence yet that simply walking every day goes a long way toward keeping the mind sharp and warding off dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.
Taken together, the new studies provide some of the most definitive evidence that relatively simple, inexpensive lifestyle changes can dramatically improve the health and well-being of the elderly, experts said.
"This package really provides a lot more data supporting the whole concept that lifestyle matters," Stampfer said.
The findings are particularly important because of the rapidly increasing number of Americans who are elderly, a driving force behind skyrocketing health care costs in the United States.
"The most important message for the public is, the combination of all these factors can have an enormous impact," said Perry Hu, a geriatric medicine expert at the UCLA School of Medicine. "It's really the combination of factors that will benefit older adults the most."
Results of four studies in today's Journal of the American Medical Association:
HEALTHY LIFESTYLES: The most comprehensive assessment of the effects of lifestyle factors found those who led the most healthful lifestyles were more than 50 percent less likely to die from any cause.
HEALTHY DIET: A study of the Mediterranean diet _ rich in grains, olive oil, vegetables, fruits and fish and low in meat and dairy _ found it improved blood vessel function and reduced inflammation in people suffering from metabolic syndrome.
PHYSICAL ACTIVITY: Elderly women who reported the most physical activity scored significantly higher on tests measuring learning, memory and attention than those who reported the least.
WALKING: Elderly men who walked the least _ less than a quarter-mile a day _ were about twice as likely to develop dementia as those who walked the most, more than 2 miles.