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Researchers Uncover Link Between Mediterranean Diet, Aging

By Tianxing V. Lan, Crimson Staff Writer

The benefits of the Mediterranean diet could be closely tied to telomeres, one of many biomarkers of aging, according to a recent study by researchers at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

By analyzing 4,676 disease-free women from the Nurses’ Health Study, researchers found that adherence to the Mediterranean diet—which has long been associated with longer life expectancy and a lower risk of heart disease—is linked to longer telomeres.

“We look at telomeres, which are the ends of chromosomes,” said Immaculata De Vivo, senior author of the study and an associate professor at the Medical School and the School of Public Health. “If you look at a shoelace, there’s a plastic part at the end that protects the shoestring. That’s what a telomere does. It keeps the chromosome from falling apart.”

This protective structure of chromosomes gets shorter each time a cell divides, and shorter telomeres are correlated with lower life expectancy and a higher risk of diseases related to aging.

Clifford W. Lo, an associate professor in the School of Public’s Health Department of Nutrition who was not a part of the study, said that the new study provides strong scientific evidence for the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

“For many years, nutrition has concentrated on nutrients rather than food and diets, and most of the dietary suggestions by the U.S. government are not specifically tested in regard to mechanism,” Lo said.

The Mediterranean diet has drawn increased scientific support within the last decade, which could help persuade the public to adopt it, according to Lo.

Moreover, health benefits are not the only incentive for people to practice the Mediterranean diet. The dietary pattern, which consists of wine, olive oil, whole grain, fish, poultry, fruits, and vegetables, is “not only good for you, but also delicious,” De Vivo said.

While the researchers have found a correlation, scientists are still uncertain if the Mediterranean diet specifically results in longer telomeres. “Our study shows that the dietary pattern is effective only when all components are put together, so it should be the combined result of different substances,” said Marta Crous Bou, first author of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow.

According to De Vivo and Crous Bou, the next steps are to look for evidence of causation between these variables and also to test the effect of the Mediterranean diet on men.

—Crimson staff writer Tianxing V. Lan can be reached at tianxinglan@college.harvard.edu.

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