We Will Be What We Eat: Dietary Changes to Make as You Age

How your diet might protect against 7 common diseases and conditions of aging.

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[See: Battling Diabetes With Diet and Exercise

Memory problems. Alas, there's no magic bullet that will guarantee protection from de­mentia. But researchers are finding that a Mediterranean diet—similar to a conventional healthful diet but with an emphasis on fish and olive oil—seems to lower the odds of developing cognitive problems. Scientists at Co­lumbia University followed more than 1,300 people for up to 16 years; those most closely adhering to this diet developed Alzheimer's at half the rate of those who didn't. One caveat: Alcohol (particularly in the form of wine), one element of the Mediterranean diet that has been suggested as a memory function enhancer, has not been proven as such, says Gary J. Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. 

[Read: 10 Things You Should Know About Alzheimers-Disease

Joint disease. Although age is a risk factor for arthritis, the breakdown of cartilage in the joints is not in­evitable. Minimizing weight gain goes a long way toward avoiding this prob­lem, because every extra pound trans­lates to three pounds of pressure on the knees while walking. It is also a good idea to limit foods that encour­age inflammation in the body, partic­ularly omega-6 fatty acids (found in corn and soybean oils and many snack and fried foods), the Arthritis Foundation says. 

Cancer. Some 45 percent of colon cancers, 38 percent of breast cancers, and 69 percent of esophageal cancers would never occur if Americans ate better, controlled their weight, and stepped up their exercise, estimates the American In­stitute for Cancer Research. "It's not just cancers of the di­gestive tract. What you eat and what you weigh affect certain other cancer types as well," says Alice Bender, AICR's nu­trition communications manager. The organization recom­mends limiting red meat to 18 (cooked) ounces per week and loading up on plant-based foods, which are high in the phy­tochemicals and antioxidants known to inhibit cancer cell growth in lab animals. Those with the deepest colors—like purple grapes, blueberries, and leafy green vegetables—have the most beneficial compounds. One recent study, for ex­ample, showed that eating foods with the antioxidant sul­foraphane, found in broccoli and kale, reduces the amount of a bacteria linked to stomach cancer. 

At least for now, people should plan on getting as many as possible of their healthful nutrients from food rather than supplements. "Numerous studies on supplements—of vitamin C, lycopene, beta-carotene, and even fiber—have all proved disappointing," Bender says. Another reason to swap that cookie for a carrot.

[Read: Cancer and Supplements: What Vitamins, Herbs and Botanicals Can and Can't Do