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Background & aims: Dietary diversity is widely advocated in national and international recommendations although whether the beneficial effects on survival or longevity still apply in the final phase of the lifespan remains understudied. We aimed to prospectively examine the association of dietary diversity, food items with all-cause mortality among the oldest old (80+) and determine whether dietary diversity recommendations were appropriate for this population.

Methods: The study included 28,790 participants aged 80+ (9957 octogenarians, 9925 nonagenarians, and 8908 centenarians). A baseline dietary diversity score (DDS) was constructed based on nine food items of a food frequency questionnaire. Cox models with penalized splines evaluated non-linear associations of DDS as continuous variable with mortality to identify cut-offs of DDS.

Results: We documented 23,503 deaths during 96,739 person-years of follow-up. Each one unit increase in DDS was associated with a 9% lower risk of mortality (adjusted hazard ratio (HR): 0.91; 95% confidential interval (CI): 0.90–0.92). Compared to participants whose DDS less than 2 scores, those with a DDS of 2, 3, 4, 5, and higher than 6 scores had a lower mortality risk, the HRs were 0.86 (0.82–0.89), 0.78 (0.75–0.81), 0.69 (0.66–0.72), 0.65 (0.62–0.68), and 0.56 (0.53–0.58) respectively, and a significant trend emerged (p < 0.001). Protein-rich food items were associated with prominent beneficial effects on mortality including meat (HR and 95% CI for high vs low frequency: 0.70 (0.68–0.72)), fish and sea food (HR, 0.74 (0.72–0.77)), egg (HR, 0.75 (0.73–0.77)), and bean (HR, 0.80 (0.78–0.82)).

Conclusions: Even after the age of 80, the DDS tool may offer a simple and straightforward mean of identifying and screening individuals at high risk for mortality. Recommendation of dietary diversity, especially consumption of protein-rich food, may be advocated to reduce mortality risk and promote longevity in the oldest old.