Eating diets high in sugar and fat are generally considered unhealthy for most Americans. But for a particular group of seniors — notably those 75 years of age and older — restrictive diets don’t make a great deal of health sense and may in fact be counter-productive, new research shows.
In fact, high-fat, high-sugar diets don’t have much impact on the health of Americans of such advanced ages, and placing them on overly restrictive diets to treat excess weight or other conditions offers little benefit, according to researchers at Penn State and Geisinger Healthcare System.
"Historically people thought of older persons as tiny and frail," said Gordon Jensen, head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State. "But that paradigm has changed for many older persons. Currently, 30 percent or more may be overweight, and by 2030, almost 30 percent are projected to be obese, not just overweight. Recent reports even suggest that there may be survival benefits associated with overweight and mild obesity status among the elderly."
The new research is part of a long-running collaborative study involving Penn State and the Geisinger Healthcare System on the effects of diet on the health of more than 20,000 older people living in Pennsylvania. For the latest study, the team tracked 449 individuals for five years, beginning when they were an average 76.5 years old.
Researchers assessed the participants' dietary patterns and grouped them into three types: "Sweets and dairy" eaters (who ate lots of baked goods, milk, dairy-based desserts, and little poultry); "health-conscious" dieters (with diets high in pasta, rice, whole fruit, poultry, nuts, fish and vegetables, and low in fried vegetables, processed meats and soft drinks); and "Western" dieters (with high intakes of bread, eggs, fats, fried vegetables, alcohol and soft drinks, and lowest intakes of milk and whole fruit).
Tracking the patients’ medical records, the researchers identified those that developed cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome during the five-year period. The results showed there was no relationship between dietary patterns and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or mortality in the participants, But the researchers did find an increased risk of hypertension in people who followed the "sweets and dairy" pattern.
"We don't know if the participants had been following these dietary patterns their entire adult lives, but we suspect they had been because people don't usually change dietary practices all that much," Jensen said. "The results suggest that if you live to be this old, then there may be little to support the use of overly restrictive dietary prescriptions, especially where food intake may already be inadequate. However, people who live on prudent diets all their lives are likely to have better health outcomes."
The study, which appeared in this month's issue of the Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging, was funded by the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.