We all know that eating a diet rich in whole grains is good for your heart. Now a new study shows that the kind of fiber found in whole grains may also reduce your risk of dying at an early age from a variety of other causes. The study, which was funded by the National Cancer Institute and published on the website of the Archives of Internal Medicine, analyzed data from more than half-a-million members of AARP between the ages of 50 and 71 who answered survey questions about their eating habits over a nine-year period.

In addition to lowering the risk of death due to heart attack and heart disease, eating plenty of fiber also appears to reduce the risk of dying from respiratory diseases, including pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, and infectious diseases. The study also found a link between fiber intake and a reduced risk of death from cancer, but only in men. Why fiber may have a more protective role against cancer in men than in women is not clear, say researchers. One possibility may be that fiber helps lower the risk of cancers that are more common in men, such as head and neck cancers. The study participants who consumed the most fiber-about 30 grams a day for men and 25 grams a day for women-were 22 percent less likely to die from any cause during the study than those who consumed the least amount of fiber-about 13 grams for men and 11 grams for women.

All Fiber Isn't the Same

The source of the fiber also appears to make a difference in its protective value. For example, consuming fiber from whole grains was most strongly associated with a lower risk of dying during the study; fiber from vegetables and beans appeared to have a minor impact on death risk; and fiber in fruit seemed to offer no protection at all. Although the study clearly showed significant health benefits from eating fiber, said study researchers, how the fiber works to improve health is unknown.

Choosing Whole Grains

Making sure that you get plenty of whole grain fiber into your diet every day isn't hard to do. Whole-grain versions of rice, breads, cereal, flour, and pasta can easily be found ion your grocer's shelves. Just make sure to check the product label on the packaging and look for the word "whole," before making any purchase. Aim for at least three grams of dietary fiber per serving.