A large research study discovered that for women, maintaining a healthy diet helps to reduce future risk of functional limitations.
Investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), examined the association between the Alternative Healthy Eating Index and reports of impairment in physical function or mobility among 54,762 women involved in the Nurses’ Health Study.
The Alternative Healthy Eating Index provides a measure of diet quality. Physical function and mobility refer to the ability to walk, dress, and perform activities of daily living essential for independent living.
Study findings are published online in the Journal of Nutrition and will follow in hard copy.
“Little research has been done on how diet impacts physical function later in life. We study the connection between diet and many other aspects of health, but we don’t know much about diet and mobility,” said Francine Grodstein, Sc.D., senior author of the study.
“We wanted to look at diet patterns and try to learn how our overall diet impacts our physical function as we get older. ”
For the study, physical function was measured by a commonly used standard instrument every four years from 1992 to 2008. Diet was measured by food frequency questionnaires, which were administered approximately every four years beginning in 1980.
The data indicate that women who maintained a healthier diet were less likely to develop physical impairments 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 intakes of oranges, orange juice, apples and pears, romaine or leaf lettuce, and walnuts.
Researchers note, however, that specific foods generally had weaker associations than the overall score. This indicates that overall diet quality is more important than individual foods.
“We think a lot about chronic diseases, cancer, heart disease, and tend not to think of physical function. Physical function is crucial as you age; it includes being able to get yourself dressed, walk around the block, and could impact your ability to live independently,” said Kaitlin Hagan, Sc.D., M.P.H., first author and a postdoctoral fellow at BWH.
Future research is needed to better understand dietary and lifestyle factors that influence physical function.