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Healthy Diets Are Associated with Lower Risks of Overall Mortality

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, MD, and the Queens College of the City University of New York in Flushing found that women who eat more "healthy" foods tend to live longer than women who eat less optimal diets. The article appears in the the latest issue of the Journal for American Medical Association (JAMA)*.

The scientists evaluated the response of 42, 254 women to a questionnaire that included questions about the frequency of various "healthy" foods consumed over the past year. Foods considered healthy were those recommended in the current guidelines of the National Research Council, the U.S. Surgeon General, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats/meat alternatives, and low-fat dairy foods. Women in the study were given Recommended Food Scores (RFS) based on the number of healthy foods they consumed at least once a week.

The researchers found that women with the highest RFS had a 30 percent lower mortality rate from all causes than women with the lowest RFS. This lower mortality rate held for the three leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

One of the authors of the paper, Arthur Schatzkin, M.D., Ph.D., of the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch of NCI's Division of Cancer Etiology and Genetics, says there are valuable messages from this study. "The first is that the current dietary recommendations are indeed associated with improved health and increased longevity. Secondly, this work may be pointing to a very practical approach to making healthful dietary changes: eat more of the recommended foods, without concentrating on the exact nutrient content of the foods you eat," said Schatzkin.

"We should remember, however, that people with higher 'recommended food scores' may have a more healthy lifestyle in general. Although we do our best in these studies to take these other lifestyle characteristics into account, we're not always completely successful in this," he continued. "Therefore, we can't be certain at this time that it's the healthy diet, rather than other aspects of health lifestyle, that is responsible for the lower mortality. We also need to confirm these findings in other large, prospective studies before we can say for sure that changing diet in this way will truly cause a reduction in mortality."

The women in this report had participated in the Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Project, a nationwide breast cancer screening program conducted between 1973 and 1980. For this study, the initial questionnaires were mailed to the participants in 1987-1989 when the average age of the women was 61.1 years. In the follow-up period, 1993-1995, there were 2,065 deaths. More than 87 percent of the women were white and had 12 or more years of education. Those with higher RFS were slightly older, more educated, physically active, more likely to drink alcohol and use supplements regularly, and less likely to be current smokers.

* The article is titled "A prospective Study of Diet Quality and Mortality in Women." The authors are Ashima K. Kant, Arthur Schatzkin, Barry I. Graubard, and Catherine Schairer. JAMA 2000; 283 (16):2109-2115.

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