Some studies have suggested that dairy rich diets contribute to heart disease because of high levels of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol. But new research published in the journal Heart and funded by health charities suggests that children who eat lots of milk and cheese may live longer.
The study will be welcome news to the dairy industry which has been campaigning for some time about the health benefits of milk and other dairy products in the face of some opposition from consumer groups and health researchers.
Studying data from the Carnegie (“Boyd Orr”) survey of diet and health in pre-war Britain, researchers from Bristol University and the Queensland Institute of Medical Research looked for links between dairy consumption during childhood and mortality.
Tracking the lives and the dairy intake of 4,374 children between 1948 and 2005, the researchers found that 1,468 (34 per cent) of them had died, and 378 of those deaths were caused by coronary heart disease and 121 were due to stroke.
Analysing this data, the scientists claimed to find no compelling evidence that high intake of dairy products was associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or stroke deaths.
Professor Richard Martin, one of the authors of the study, told Dairy Reporter: “This finding was all the more compelling because the children in the study were drinking high fat milk.”
Not only did the study suggest that dairy rich diets in childhood do not contribute to heart problems later, they found that higher childhood calcium intake was associated with lower stroke mortality.
In addition, children who were in the group that had the highest calcium intake and dairy product consumption were found to have lower mortality rates than those in the lower intake groups.
“Children whose family diet in the 1930s was high in calcium were at reduced risk of death from stroke,” said the study authors. “Furthermore, childhood diets rich in dairy or calcium were associated with lower all-cause mortality in adulthood.”
Martin said the study is one of the first to look into dairy consumption at mortality over such a long period.
Call for more research
The Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Bristol University said studies on other study populations should be conducted to confirm the conclusions and look into factors such as socioeconomic differences that may skew the findings. Nevertheless, he said wealth was controlled for in the Heart study.
The UK-charity Stroke Association also called for more research. Spokesperson Joanne Murphy said: “This is an interesting study, but we need to take a further look to really assess the benefits of milk in reducing the chances of dying from stroke.”
The findings of the Heart study, which was funded by charities including Welcome Trust, British Health Fund and World Cancer Research Fund, go against some previous research that has linked high dairy consumption to heart disease and other health problems.
The Harvard School of Public Health says: “Many dairy products are high in saturated fats, and a high saturated fat intake is a risk factor for heart disease.”
Published 2009; doi 10.1136/hrt.2009.168716
“Childhood dairy and calcium intake and cardiovascular mortality in adulthood: 65-year follow-up of the Boyd Orr cohort”
Authors: J C van der Pols, D Gunnell, G M Williams, J M P Holly, C Bain, R M Martin.