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May 16, 2000 -- An apple a day may keep death at bay (if not quite the doctor away) according to a new Swedish study, which found that middle-age and elderly men who ate the most fruit tended to live longer than those who ate the least.

"It's a very interesting study; they did seem to find that high fruit intake was associated with reduced risk of [death] among men," Katherine Tucker, PhD, tells WebMD. Tucker, an associate professor of nutritional epidemiology at Tufts University in Boston, was not involved in the study.

The researchers followed a group of more than 700 men born in 1913, from age 54 (in 1967) to age 80 (in 1993). They were asked how often they ate certain foods, such as fruits/vegetables, sweets, and meats, and they were re-examined periodically.

There were fewer overall deaths and deaths related to heart problems among men who ate the most fruit, compared to those who ate the least. The study found no difference in the rates of heart disease -- those who ate more fruit were just less likely to die of the disease. They also found no difference between groups where rates of cancer and cancer deaths were concerned.

Another thing that the researchers did not see: a link between vegetable consumption and survival.

"Most of the studies I have seen find [benefits] with both fruits and vegetables," says Tucker. "That makes sense because fruits and vegetables tend to contain similar types of nutrients but come in different packages."

But before you pass on the peas or toss the turnip, Tucker says that there may be a good reason why the researchers saw no connection between vegetable consumption and survival: not enough information. The study participants were asked about food consumption only once, at the first interview in 1967, when vegetable consumption in Sweden among men was quite low. Since then, other studies have shown that people in Sweden have increased their vegetable consumption. So it may be that incomplete data influenced the results.

Tucker says that people shouldn't interpret the study to mean that vegetables aren't important. "That is not a good message. I think that although it sounds confusing, the data are actually very consistent and becoming much more clear," she says, adding that there have been literally hundreds of studies associating high fruit and vegetable intakes with lower risk of heart disease and cancer. "I think that most studies either show an effect or tend towards an effect, but sometimes it is difficult to see."

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