Women who adhere to the Mediterranean diet tend to live longer

A large study demonstrates benefits in reducing cancer and cardiovascular mortality, while also identifying potential biological drivers of better health. Health refers to a state of complete emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Healthcare exists to help people maintain wellness in these crucial areas of life.

Women who adhere to the Mediterranean diet tend to live longer

A study conducted by researchers from Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital followed over 25,000 U.S. women for up to 25 years, finding that those who closely adhered to the Mediterranean diet had up to a 23 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality, with significant benefits for cancer and cardiovascular health. The study, published in JAMA, also uncovered biological changes that might explain these longevity benefits.

“For women who want to live longer, our study highlights the importance of diet,” said senior author Samia Mora, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Following a Mediterranean dietary pattern could reduce the risk of death by about one-quarter over more than 25 years, benefiting both cancer and cardiovascular mortality, the leading causes of death in the U.S. and globally.”

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based foods (nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes), with olive oil as the main fat source. It includes moderate consumption of fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, and alcohol, and limits meats, sweets, and processed foods.

The study investigated the long-term benefits of adherence to the Mediterranean diet in the U.S. population from the Women’s Health Study, exploring the biological mechanisms behind the diet’s health benefits. Researchers evaluated around 40 biomarkers representing various biological pathways and clinical risk factors.

Key biomarkers included those related to metabolism and inflammation, followed by triglyceride-rich lipoproteins, adiposity, and insulin resistance.

“Our research provides significant public health insights: even modest changes in established risk factors for metabolic diseases—particularly those linked to small-molecule metabolites, inflammation, triglyceride-rich lipoproteins, obesity, and insulin resistance—can yield substantial long-term benefits from following a Mediterranean diet,” said lead author Shafqat Ahmad, an associate professor of epidemiology at Uppsala University, Sweden, and researcher at the Brigham.

The study noted some limitations, including its focus on middle-aged and older, well-educated female health professionals who were predominantly non-Hispanic and white. It relied on self-reported measures such as food-frequency questionnaires, height, weight, and blood pressure. However, the study's strengths include its large scale and long follow-up period.

As the Mediterranean diet has gained popularity, it has been adapted in different countries and cultures. “The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are recognized by medical professionals, and our study offers insights into why the diet may be so beneficial,” said Mora. “Public health policies should promote the healthful attributes of the Mediterranean diet and discourage unhealthy adaptations.” 

The Women’s Health Study is supported by the National Institutes of Health. More information on funding for individual researchers can be found here.