Physical disabilities are an ever-growing threat as we age – but you don’t have to wait until your later years to do something about it. According to a new study, eating a healthy diet when you’re young can help you stay mobile as you grow older.

It Pays to Start Early

We tend to think we have a “free pass” in our 20’s to eat anything we want. After all, if you aren’t seeing or feeling any negative effects, there must not be any – right?

According to new research out from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the diet you maintain in your youth can have a direct – and serious – impact on your ability to avoid physical disability and stay mobile later on in life.

“Little research has been done on how diet impacts physical function later in life,” says Francine Grodstein, a senior author of the study and researcher in the Channing Division of Network Medicine.

“We study the connection between diet and many other aspects of health, but we don’t know much about diet and mobility. We wanted to look at diet patterns and try to learn how our overall diet impacts our physical function as we get older."

The study, which appears in the July issue of Journal of Nutrition, analyzed data from 54,762 women who participated in the national Nurses’ Health Study from 1992 through 2008. Specifically, researchers looked at correlations between diet and mobility.

The results showed that participants who ate healthier diets were less likely to develop mobility problems as the study progressed.

A Winning Combination

While the study results showed a general consensus across the board, some specific diet guidelines stood out.

Specifically, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables was a major component. Women whose diets included a large percentage of fruits such as pears, apples and oranges showed significantly improved mobility in later life. Vegetables such as lettuce also scored highly, and walnuts also made an appearance in the top 5 beneficial foods listed.

Avoiding unhealthy foods was also crucial. Consumption of trans fats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and excessive sodium were all tied with increased rates of physical disability as the study progressed.

While specific foods and food groups were cited in the results however, researchers were careful to note that general diet patterns had a much greater impact than individual food groups. In other words, you can’t solve everything by simply eating an extra apple every day and cutting back on Crisco – to see real benefits you need to eat an over-all healthier diet.

Your Health as a Long Term Investment

There are already plenty of reasons to protect your health. We know for instance, that maintaining a healthy diet can help reduce your risks of Alzheimer’s disease. Maintaining healthy a weight can also do wonders for your risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and more. It’s no secret that staying healthy in your youth pays off in the long run.

When thinking about health risks however, we often gravitate to the big, scary, high profile issues like cancer. And while it’s important to remember how serious risks to your health can be, some later-life issues may not get the attention they deserve.

“We think a lot about chronic diseases, cancer, heart disease, and tend not to think of physical function,” says Kaitlin Hagan, study first author and postdoctoral fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Physical function is crucial as you age; it includes being able to get yourself dressed, walk around the block, and could impact your ability to live independently."

There really aren’t many free passes in life. Just because you can’t see the effects of an unhealthy diet right away, doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

Want to make the most of your future? It’s time to start providing for it now!