The study, published this week in the British medical journal Thorax, found that men who ate nearly an apple a day had slightly stronger lung function than those who excluded the fruit from their diets.
It is not clear why the apple-eaters could breathe more effortlessly, but apples contain antioxidants, which experts believe may ward off disease by combating oxygen's damaging effect on the body. Scientists have found that antioxidants have the same effect on women as on men.
Scientists previously have found that better lung function is linked to eating fresh fruit and taking antioxidant vitamin pills and that lung disease and lung cancer are seen less frequently in people who eat lots of hard fruit such as apples.
"This study strengthens the argument that eating fresh fruit, and apples, may be good for you," said Cora Tabak of the National Institute of Public Health and Environment in the Netherlands.
In the study, researchers from St. George's Hospital in London examined the health records of 2,500 Welsh men aged 45-59 who had been followed by other scientists for five years. They had been questioned about their eating habits and made to blow as hard as they could into a machine for one second to measure lung capacity.
The test, known as an FEV, for forced expiratory volume, measures how much air someone can exhale in one second.
The researchers adjusted their results to eliminate the potential influence of other factors, such as smoking, exercise habits, the total amount the men ate and socioeconomic class.
They found that the apple eaters could exhale 138 milliliters more air in one second than those of the same age and height who ate no apples, which indicated their airways had fewer obstructions and were therefore healthier.
An average man of that age usually has a score of about 4,000 milliliters, Tabak said.
Dr. Gail Weinmann, medical officer at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md., said a person who has no breathing problems would not notice the difference.
The study also confirmed earlier findings that vitamin E is associated with easier breathing, but the connection was weaker than for apples.
It also looked at the influence of vitamin C, beta carotene, citrus fruit and fruit juices. None of those seemed to improve lung function.
Paul A. Lachance, executive director of the Nutraceuticals Institute at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said it was plausible the benefit came from the antioxidants in apples, but that it was unlikely only a single antioxidant was at work.
Experts believe apples are loaded with several hundred healthy compounds and it may be the unique combination of those nutrients that creates the effect, he said.
By Emma Ross
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