Eating More Protein Encourages Healthy Aging in Women, Study Finds

Protein, particularly from plants, may play a key role in healthy aging for women, according to a new study.

Hoping to age well? The secret may be getting lots of protein, especially of the plant-based variety.

A new study, conducted by researchers from Tufts University and published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on Wednesday, evaluated the long-term role of dietary protein intake in healthy aging among women. The study found that protein intake was significantly associated with higher odds of healthy aging and that eating lots of plant-based protein, in particular, reduced the likelihood of developing age-related health issues.

Researchers analyzed self-reported data from 48,000 women participants in the prospective Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) cohort from 1984 to 2016, all of whom were deemed healthy and between the ages of 38 and 59 at the start of the study.

Over the course of the study, researchers found that those who ate more protein from plants, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, experienced less heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and cognitive and mental health decline than those who ate less.

Specifically, women who consumed mostly plant-based protein were 46% more likely to avoid major chronic illness and other mental and physical health issues as they aged, while those who ate mostly animal-based protein were 6% less likely to stay healthy in comparison. They were still more likely to avoid disease than those who consumed less protein in general, however.

"Consuming protein in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adulthood," said Andres Ardisson Korat, a scientist at the HNRCA and lead author of the study, in a news release. "We also found that the source of protein matters. Getting the majority of your protein from plant sources at midlife, plus a small amount of animal protein seems to be conducive to good health and good survival to older ages."

The results demonstrated that plant protein was particularly associated with good mental health later in life. It was also associated with lower levels of LDL cholesterol (known as the "bad" cholesterol), blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity. Higher animal protein intake was meanwhile linked to higher levels in these categories, which are contributing factors to heart disease, along with increased insulin-like growth factor, which has been detected in multiple cancers.

It is possible, the researchers said, that some of the observed benefits of the plant-based proteins are the result of the dietary fiber, micronutrients, and beneficial compounds called polyphenols that plants contain.

The study supports the recommendation that young and middle-aged women should consume lots of protein from fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, as well as some fish and animal protein for iron and vitamin B12.

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