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Investigating the secret to a long and healthy life

Mar 15, 2017 |

An SPPH study is looking into the diets of ‘super seniors’ – people who have reached 85 years and older without developing a major age-related disease – to discover what foods could have helped keep them healthy.

Christina Gu

MSc student
Christina Gu

Headed by Centre of Excellence in Cancer Prevention Assistant Professor Rachel Murphy and assisted by Master of Science student Christina Gu, in collaboration with The Healthy Aging Study at the BC Cancer Agency, the study involves about 175 super seniors and 235 control individuals in British Columbia, who will fill out a questionnaire about their usual diet in the previous 12 months.

The Healthy Aging Study at the BC Cancer Agency aims to identify genetic factors associated with healthy aging and resistance to age-related diseases, according to the Agency’s website, with recruitment ongoing for eligible individuals – those who are 85 years or older and have never been diagnosed with heart disease, cancer, lung disease, diabetes, or dementia.

Using participants in this study, Dr. Murphy and Miss Gu’s research will compare the diet of super seniors with that of the control individuals, aged 50 to 67 years old, representing the usual aging population.

“Diet is one of the modifiable risk factors that we have control for – unlike air pollution or genetics, it’s easier to change our eating habits and enjoy the benefits of it.”
MSc student Christina Gu

Questionnaires were sent out towards the end of January 2017 and covered different dietary areas including intake of red and processed meats, fruit and vegetables, and dairy products, she said.

Rachel Murphy

Assistant Professor Rachel Murphy

“With the rapidly aging population in Canada, it’s important to understand factors that help contribute to longevity, and more importantly, good health at the upper end of life,” said Dr Murphy. Very few people lived to 85 without developing a chronic disease – those who did could have specific lifestyle behaviours that helped them reach this age, she said.

“Understanding whether diet is one of these factors could be important for making dietary recommendations to support healthy aging.”
Assistant Professor Rachel Murphy

The study predicts that super seniors would follow dietary patterns similar to those in ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘Okinawan’ diets, including eating lots of fish, whole grains, and vegetables, with low intake of red meat and sugar, she said.

With analysis due for completion at the end of summer, the team would look at whether the findings could be used to tailor health messaging or dietary recommendations for health promotion including, if appropriate, developing materials or programs to encourage healthy eating, Dr. Murphy said.

Students interested in working with Dr. Murphy on this project or discussing this area of research can email her here.

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