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Plant-Based Protein Tied to Lower Risk of Dying Among Older Women

CardioSmart News

Older women who ate higher amounts of plant-based proteins – for example, tofu, nuts and legumes – were also less likely to die from heart disease, dementia or any other cause during an average of 18 years follow-up, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Interestingly, the same trends were seen when women substituted or replaced 5% of animal protein with comparable amounts of plant-based alternatives.

While previous studies have linked diets high in red meat to heart disease, data are lacking about other types of protein.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from 102,521 postmenopausal women enrolled in the national Women's Health Initiative study between 1993 and 1998; they were followed through February 2017. All participants were between the ages of 50 and 79 years old.

At the start of the study, participants completed questionnaires about their diet, including how often they ate eggs, dairy, poultry, red meat, fish/shellfish, as well as plant-based proteins such as tofu, nuts, beans and peas. During follow-up, a total of 25,976 deaths occurred – 6,993 from cardiovascular disease; 7,516 from cancer; and 2,734 from dementia.

Researchers then looked to see whether there was a relationship between different types of protein and death and further compared all-cause, cardiovascular- and dementia-related deaths for women who ate the least and the most of each protein.

Overall, women who consumed the highest amount of plant-based protein had a 9% lower risk of dying from any cause, a 12% lower likelihood of having a heart-related death, and a 21% lower risk of dementia-related death when compared with women who ate the least amount of plant-based protein. The association between plant-based proteins and a lower risk of death, including dying from heart disease or dementia, remained even after accounting for other factors that could play a role, including age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, dietary and lifestyle patterns and family history of disease.

Eating larger amounts of red meat, eggs or dairy products was associated with a higher chance of dying from cardiovascular disease – 12%, 24% and 11%, respectively; a higher consumption of processed red meat was associated with a greater likelihood of dying of any cause and a 20% higher risk of dying from dementia. Poultry and eggs were linked to lower deaths from dementia. Substituting total red meat, eggs or dairy products with nuts was tied to a lower risk of dying for any reason.

“In this large prospective cohort study, we found that higher plant protein intake and substitution of animal protein with plant protein were associated with lower risk of all-cause, [cardiovascular disease], and dementia mortality,” the authors stated. “Furthermore, we identified nuts as potential healthier alternatives for red meat, eggs, dairy products, and legumes. Our findings support the need for consideration of protein sources in future dietary guidelines.”

Researchers were quick to caution that protein isn’t eaten in isolation and the study doesn’t take into account how someone may have prepared or cooked their foods or common pairings (for example, eggs are often eaten with bacon). It’s also based on participants’ self-report of eating patterns at the start of the study, which can change over time. The findings are also limited to older, postmenopausal women.

Still, the findings suggest that plant-based proteins may be a heart-healthier option. As always, talk with your care team about any questions you have about adopting a heart-healthy diet.

This study was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

For more information, visit CardioSmart.org/EatBetter.  

Association of Major Dietary Protein Sources With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality: Prospective Cohort Study of Major Dietary Protein Sources With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality: Prospective Cohort Study,” Journal of the American Heart Association, Feb. 24. Learn about CardioSmart's editorial process. Information provided for educational purposes only. Please talk to your health care professional about your specific needs.