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The Mediterranean Diet and Death in America



I've reported in the past on studies that investigate the Mediterranean Diet's effects on cholesterol (News Bite, 8/9/06) and heart disease (News Bite, 7/11/06). Recently the National Cancer Institute, in partnership with AARP, published the findings of a long term, large scale, prospective study (meaning the subjects were followed through time) on the Mediterranean Diet and its effects on all-cause mortality in the United States (Arch Intern Med 2007;167(22):2461-2468).

In 1995, over 380,000 members of the AARP responded to an initial questionnaire assessing behaviors such as smoking status and exercise, and provided information regarding their health. Those who were selected to participate in the study had no history of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic diseases, and were asked to respond to a detailed dietary history questionnaire.

The researchers assessed each subject's diet in comparison with the Mediterranean Diet. Those subjects whose diets matched most closely to the Mediterranean Diet were assigned a score of 9 and those least closely matching received a 0. After five years of follow-up, the scientists looked at the causes of death in the over 12,000 subjects who had died during the study and related them to each subject's dietary score.

Even after controlling for such variables as race, smoking status, Body Mass Index, and exercise level, they found that for men, those with higher levels of the Mediterranean Diet score (7-9) were 23% less likely to die from any cause, including cancer and heart disease, than those whose diets received the lowest scores (0-3). Women, on the other hand, saw a 22% decrease in risk of death from all causes, a 14% lower risk of death from cancer, and a 21% reduction in risk of death from heart disease. In fact, generally speaking, an increase of just one point in the dietary score meant an additional 5% reduction in risk of death from all causes. This remained true even when the researchers excluded everyone who had ever smoked.

It's interesting to note that even those who smoked and had a Body Mass Index over 30 (clinically obese) still enjoyed some reduction in risk of death when comparing those with a high Mediterranean Diet score with those who had a low dietary score.

What this means for you

The key point here is that small differences in an individual's diet, over the long term, can have a big impact: a 5% decrease in mortality with each increase in your Mediterranean Diet score! Take a look at my section on the Mediterranean Diet and think about what your dietary score might be. Then choose an area to make improvements in your diet. You'll live longer.

First posted: December 26, 2007