Gray hair, creaky joints and wrinkled skin are inevitable as we grow older. But what if you could delay the onset of the infirmities that often come with aging? You could challenge white-water rapids in a raft alongside your grandchildren. And you'd probably never have to exchange your treadmill for a walker. 

Sounds too good to be true? It does take some work. Prolonging your healthy and active life isn't about swallowing an herbal supplement or vitamin for a few months. If you want to stay young, you have to make a long-term commitment to eating right. The word from researchers: Tipping the balance toward more nutrient-rich foods while you're still young can go a long way toward keeping you healthier longer. 

Sure, you've heard it before, probably from your mother when she urged you to eat more greens and fewer slices of pepperoni pizza. A new study in the August 2000 issue of the journal Circulation shows that Mom had a point. Young people can prematurely age, too. In fact, researchers found cholesterol deposits in the coronary arteries of teenagers and young adults. 

Indeed, the effects of aging start sooner than you might think. We age along a continuum, rather than all of a sudden, says Dr. Robert Russell, professor of medicine and nutrition at Tufts University in Boston. "You don't wake up one morning to notice you've aged," he says. "The age-related nutrition issues that confront seniors -- from osteoporosis to heart disease -- begin in the early adult years." 

Choose the right foods

That means that the foods you may or may not be eating could be laying the foundation for your health, or lack of it, during your senior years. Of course, eating well is a difficult choice with the ever-present temptations of fast food and junk food. 

But take a look at what these foods are doing to you. Sour-cream-filled burritos and grease-soaked french fries provide fodder for artery-clogging plaques. A fiberless daily menu of a beef patty nestled between two slices of white bread promotes constipation, setting you up for diverticulitis, a painful condition of the colon that afflicts half of all Americans over 60. And forgoing milk and calcium-enriched juices for super-sized sugary sodas only encourages the onset of osteoporosis and tooth decay. Add decades of smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, stress and other environmental factors and you will age -- early and quickly. 

The alternate scenario is much more attractive. Minerals from calcium-rich dairy foods and greens can strengthen your bones. Fiber from whole grains helps to keep bowel movements regular. And the antioxidants from fruits and vegetables help to prevent cancer from developing by fighting off free radicals, byproducts of the body's everyday processes that can damage DNA, cells and tissues. 

vegetablesA simple approach

How do you incorporate more healthy foods into your meals? Don't worry, no complicated diets are needed here. The easiest move you can make is to add more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to your daily menu. Most have no fat, cholesterol or sodium -- and they're low in calories. What you do get is lots of fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium and vitamins, which all play a part in keeping you functioning at your best. 

Researchers are proving it. In a study published in the April 26, 2000, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers reported finding that women who ate diets high in fruits, vegetables, grains and lean meats were 30 percent less likely to die of any cause than women who didn't eat such a diet during the study. 

The researchers tracked the women for about six years. But at exactly what age you need to begin eating well is anybody's guess. What's clear is that heart attacks, osteoporosis and other signs of aging take years to develop. Eating healthy foods slows that development, helping you to live better and longer. 

Sure, there are a slew of factors besides food that influence your well-being and longevity, says Dr. Arthur Schatzkin, a co-author of the study and chief of the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch at the National Cancer Institute. However, the proof that what you eat counts for a lot, he says, "is certainly provocative." 

So get ahead by eating right early in life. If you're already approaching those later years, it's not too late to start. There are always rewards to reap. 

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