FRIDAY, June 1, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Women in their 70s can gain more years by following advice they may be giving their grandkids: exercise and eat your fruits and vegetables.
So finds a new study that helps confirm healthy living can extend life, even in the retirement years.
"This is one of those findings that sounds like common sense," said study lead author Emily Nicklett, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, in Ann Arbor.
"But while it may seem obvious, it's important to go back to the basics in terms of understanding that diet and exercise can strongly predict mortality among older adults," she said. "Promoting healthy diets that include fruits and vegetables, together with some form of simple physical activity like walking, can make dramatic improvements in terms of health outcomes."
Nicklett and her colleagues published their findings in the May issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
The authors noted that U.S. seniors over age 65 are the fastest-growing slice of the country's population.
In the study, Nicklett's team focused on more than 700 women between the ages of 70 and 79 who were living independently in their communities and enrolled in two related physical disability studies.
The women were asked how much they engaged in physical activities such as structured exercise (i.e., walking or strength training), household or outdoor chores, or pastimes such as bowling or dancing.
The women's nutrition was measured via blood samples that measured each participant's total level of carotenoids. These plant-based compounds are thought to be an accurate indicator of an individual's fruit and vegetable consumption, the researchers explained.
All the participants were then tracked for five years, during which time nearly 12 percent of the women died.
The researchers found that the most active women had the best survival prospects, and so did the women who consumed the most fruits and vegetables.
Breaking it down, the team observed that the most active women had a 71 percent lower death rate during a five-year period compared with the most sedentary women in the study.
"And we're not talking about dramatic activity when we talk about exercise," Nicklett stressed. "We're not talking about rugby players. We're talking about something as simple as walking around the block, which is the way most women in our study burned the most calories."
The women with the highest carotenoid levels faced a 46 percent lower chance of dying during the five-year follow-up period versus those with the lowest fruit-and-vegetable intake.
And because the study also was designed to explore the impact of exercise and nutrition together, the team found that women who were both the most physically active and the highest consumers of fruits and vegetables were eight times more likely to be alive after the study's five years of follow-up, compared to women who scored lowest on both counts.
"In terms of public health, this finding raises the question of, 'How do we encourage a healthy lifestyle that boosts longevity?'" Nicklett said. "And that can mean looking into whether there are enough safe places for these women to walk, or whether or not they have access to fresh fruits. It's really about going back to the basics."
Lona Sandon, a registered dietician and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, agreed that although the findings were "not particularly surprising," they are an important reminder that "exercise and eating healthfully is good for you."
"We already know in other age categories that eating well and staying active is good for us," she said. "So it makes sense that it should then also apply to us as we get older."
"As to what it is exactly about exercise and fruits and vegetables that helps women to live longer lives, that is not exactly clear," Sandon cautioned. "Maybe if you stay more physically fit you remain more functional and are less likely to fall and break a leg or hip, for example. Or perhaps exercise and good food keeps your immune system healthier. Or it could be the socialization involved when exercise is done in groups. Or maybe all of the above."
There's more on healthy aging at the U.S National Institute on Aging.