Healthy Eating May Help You Maintain Mobility as You Age

This story was originally published in The Brigham and Women's Hospital Health Blog.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) have found an association between women who maintain a healthy diet and a reduction in the risk of developing impaired physical function as they age. The findings were published this month in the Journal of Nutrition.

“There has been little research on how diet impacts physical function later in life,” says Francine Grodstein, ScD, senior author of the study and a researcher in the Channing Division of Network Medicine at BWH. “Our goal was to look at diet patterns and try to learn how our overall diet impacts our physical function as we get older.”

BWH researchers examined the association between the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, a measure of overall diet quality, with reports of impairment in physical function among more than 54,000 women involved in the Nurses’ Health Study. Physical function was measured every four years (from 1992 to 2008), and diet was measured by food frequency questionnaires, which were given to participants approximately every four years beginning in 1980.

The data indicate that women who maintained a healthier diet were less likely to develop physical impairments later in life compared to women whose diets were not as healthy. They also found a higher intake of vegetables and fruits, a lower intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, trans-fats, and sodium, and a moderate alcohol intake, were each significantly associated with reduced rates of physical impairment.

Among individual foods, the strongest relations were found for increased consumption of oranges, orange juice, apples and pears, romaine or leaf lettuce, and walnuts and better physical function. However, researchers noted specific foods generally had weaker associations than the overall score, which indicates that the quality of the overall diet is more important than individual foods.

“Physical function is crucial as you age,” says Kaitlin Hagan, ScD, MPH, first author and a postdoctoral fellow at BWH. “It includes being able to dress yourself or walk around the block, and it can impact your ability to live independently.”

Future research is needed to better understand dietary and lifestyle factors that influence physical function.