Mediterranean diet may help slow aging

There's new evidence that eating a Mediterranean diet could be good for more than your waistline -- it might even help you live longer.

Researchers say a Mediterranean diet -- avoiding processed foods and red meat in favor of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, olive oil and the occasional glass of red wine -- appears to protect a person's DNA from damage that naturally occurs with aging.

"This study really looks at how diet affects how our cells age, and essentially how rapidly we age," Dr. Tara Narula, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told "CBS This Morning."

For the study, published Tuesday in BMJ, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston surveyed the eating habits of more than 4,600 women taking part in the long-running Nurses' Health Study.

Women who stuck more closely to a Mediterranean diet were found to have longer telomeres -- a biomarker of aging found at the end of each chromosome in the body. Telomeres help protect DNA from damage "almost like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces," Narula explained.

Telomeres get shorter every time a cell divides. Shorter telomeres are associated with chronic age-related diseases and earlier death, while longer telomeres are considered a sign of longevity.

"To our knowledge this is the largest population-based study specifically addressing the association between Mediterranean diet adherence and telomere length in healthy, middle-aged women," said Immaculata De Vivo, an associate professor Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard School of Public Health and senior author of the study. "Our results further support the benefits of adherence to this diet to promote health and longevity."

Other types of generally healthy diets provided some of the same benefits, but researchers say the Mediterranean diet appears to be most effective.

"Our findings showed that healthy eating, overall, was associated with longer telomeres. However, the strongest association was observed among women who adhered to the Mediterranean diet," said Marta Crous-Bou, a postdoctoral fellow and first author of the study.

Additional research will be needed to try to identify which specific components of the diet are responsible for providing the protection.

In previous studies, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to have numerous other health benefits. A major study published in February 2013 found people who followed the diet had 30 percent fewer heart attacks and strokes and were less likely to die from heart disease.

The diet also appears to help protect memory and thinking skills. A study published in April 2013 found that adults who closely followed a Mediterranean diet were 19 percent less likely to develop memory and cognitive problems later in life.

"This diet is full of antioxidants and basically has anti-inflammatory effects and that's what protects the health of your DNA and your genetic material," Narula said.