Healthy diet now, saves on health care costs later

June 09, 2003

HONOLULU, June 9 - Baby boomers, it's not too late - adopting a healthy diet now can lower health care costs when you're older. Research reported today at the American Heart Association's Second Asia Pacific Scientific Forum looked at eating behavior in midlife and found that high intake of fruits and vegetables translates to lower health care costs later.

Previous studies have shown that adopting a healthy diet and reducing risk factors such as smoking and lack of exercise early in life can help protect against long-term risk of death from coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer. Few studies have described the economic consequences of these risk factors.

"To our knowledge, no other study has linked eating patterns to health care cost," says lead researcher Martha L. Daviglus, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor, department of preventive medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago.

Researchers with the Chicago Western Electric (WE) study evaluated middle-aged men who were employed at the Chicago Western Electric Company in 1957-58. Participants included 1,070 men, 40-55 years old and who were free of heart disease at baseline examination.

More than 25 years later, Medicare expenditures identified in the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) inpatient and outpatient databases (1984-2000) were examined to estimate average annual health care costs for Medicare-eligible (65+ years) surviving participants in the study. To account for inflation, all charges were adjusted to the year 2000 dollars on the basis of the hospital services component of the Consumer Price Index.

Participants were classified into three groups according to their fruit and vegetable intake in 1959: low (less than 14 cups per month), middle (14-42 cups per month) and high (more than 42 cups per month). The 237 men in the high-consumption group had the lowest total annual Medicare charges ($11,416) and the lowest charges related to coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease.

The 290 men in the lowest group had annual medical charges of $14,655. The 543 men in the middle group had annual charges of $12,622. "These associations were not influenced by cardiovascular risk factors such as age, obesity, blood cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking, or by other dietary factors," Daviglus says. "Our findings suggest that high intake of fruits and vegetables - which may reflect healthy eating habits in middle age - have a beneficial impact not only on future health but also on health care costs in older age," she says. "They also support current dietary guidelines, which advocate consumption of five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day - much higher levels than those consumed in the average American diet.

"With 20 percent of the U.S. population estimated to be 65 years or older by the year 2030, the potential to contain health care costs by implementing healthy lifestyles and healthy eating habits earlier in life has important implications for future health care expenditures."
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Co-authors are Kiang Liu, Lijing L. Yan, Amber Pirzada, Daniel B. Garside, Linda Van Horn, Alan R. Dyer, Philip Greenland and Jeremiah Stamler.

Editor's note: The American Heart Association advocates a healthy overall eating pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry and fish. For more information, visit the American Heart Association Web site: americanheart.org.

American Heart Association

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