According to a study in this month’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people with a high consumption of dairy products, and fruits and vegetables had a lower risk for developing a functional disability as they age than their counterparts with lower consumption of these foods. While there was a reduction in risk across all ethnic groups studied, the greatest risk reduction was seen for black women – a reduction of 30 percent.

Researchers from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center believe this is the first study of its kind to report on a possible link between disability and eating certain foods.

For the study, the researchers evaluated data from the Atheroscierosis Risk in Communities study which included about 16,000 randomly selected participants in Jackson, Miss., Hagerstown, Md. and Minneapolis, Minn. People with chronic disease and who were already likely to be disabled were excluded from the study. Study participants, who were between the age of 45 and 64 when the study began, tracked their diets for one year using a 66-item food frequency questionnaire.

Then, an average of nine years later, the researchers surveyed each of the participants on their ability to perform 12 daily activities, such as dressing and feeding themselves, walking across a room (activities of daily living), being able to cook and manage their money (instrumental activities of daily living), being able to walk a quarter of a mile, and the ability to walk up 10 steps without resting (considered functional activities).

After researchers adjusted for other factors – age, education, smoking and body mass index – that could affect the results they discovered that participants with higher consumption of dairy, fruits and vegetables had a lower risk of functional limitations. The decrease in risk was greatest in black women.

In the study those with a high consumption ate on average two servings of dairy, three servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables each day. In contrast, study participants in the low consumption group had less than half of a serving of dairy, and one or less servings of fruits and vegetables. 

The researchers say the results should be studied to evaluate the potential for the combination of dairy, fruits and vegetables “to reduce the prevalence of disability in an ageing population.”