People 65 and over who added as little as two slices of whole grain bread a day to their diet had a lower risk of new cardiovascular disease, says a study in the April 2 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The effect held true with high-fiber cereals and other types of dark bread.
As the nation ages, rates of cardiovascular disease are expected to skyrocket. Right now, there are 35 million people aged 65 or older in the United States, and that number is expected to reach 70 million by 2030, say the researchers. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death and disability in this age group.
Dietary fiber has been shown to reduce incidence of ischemic heart disease and stroke in middle-aged people. However, experts have worried the same recommendations may not be as effective among older people, in whom disease theoretically has already set in. In fact, that seems not to be the case.
"Even these types of simple, easy, hygienic measures are good even in the elderly," says Dr. Stephen Siegel, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine who was not associated with the study. "It's always nice to have another group specifically targeted. It helps to give more scientific support for the general recommendation that's been in place for quite a while in terms of increasing the amount of dietary fiber, and in particular the more complex fibers."
Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle analyzed data from 3,588 men and women 65 years or older who were part of the Cardiovascular Health Study. None of the participants had cardiovascular disease (CVD) at the beginning of the study. All of the participants answered a 99-item food frequency questionnaire put out by the National Cancer Institute. It asked them to rank how often they ate particular foods, from five times per year to five times or more per week.
After adjusting for various factors including age, gender, diabetes, smoking status, exercise, alcohol intake, and fruit and vegetable consumption, it became clear that intake of cereal fiber was inversely related to new CVD. Those who consumed the highest amounts of this type of dietary fiber had a 21 percent lower risk than those who consumed the least amount.
The trend was especially so among people who ate dark breads such as wheat, rye, or pumpernickel: They had a 24 percent lower risk of CVD.
Neither fruit nor vegetable fiber intake were associated with new CVD, but it didn't seem to be protective, either, the study found.
"It certainly gives some support for complex carbohydrates," Siegel says.
And while the differences in risk were not huge, they took place with relatively small changes in the diet, equal to about two slices of whole grain bread each day. That's a whole lot cheaper and less complicated than most other medical interventions.