If everyone over the age of 50 ate an apple a day, 8,500 deaths from heart attacks and strokes could be avoided every year in the UK, say researchers.
Apples would give a similar boost to cardiovascular health as medicines, such as statins, yet carry none of the side-effects, the University of Oxford researchers say in the BMJ.
They base their assumptions on modelling, not direct scientific study.
Any fruit should work, but getting people to comply could be challenging.
More than two-thirds of adults do not eat the recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day, population surveys suggest.
And although nine in 10 of us do manage to eat at least one portion a day, Dr Adam Briggs and colleagues, from the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University, say we would all benefit from eating more.
By their calculations, if adults of all ages could manage to eat an extra portion of fruit or veg a day, as many as 11,000 vascular deaths could be averted each year.
The Victorian mantra of “an apple a day” to keep the doctor away is particularly important for the over-50s, who are at increased risk of vascular diseases, say the researchers.
They analysed the effect on the most common causes of vascular mortality – heart attacks and strokes – of prescribing either a statin a day, which lowers cholesterol, or an apple a day to people over 50.
Assuming at least seven in every 10 complied with the advice, statin drugs could save 9,400 lives and an apple a day 8,500 lives a year, they calculate.
The data their work rests on comprises a large body of medical trials and observations involving hundreds of thousands of patients.
Dr Briggs said: “The Victorians had it about right when they came up with their brilliantly clear and simple public health advice, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’
“It just shows how effective small changes in diet can be, and that both drugs and healthier living can make a real difference in preventing heart disease and stroke.
“While no-one currently prescribed statins should replace them for apples, we could all benefit from simply eating more fruit.”
Dr Peter Coleman, of the Stroke Association, said everyone stood to benefit from eating a balanced diet.
“Apples have long been known as a natural source of antioxidants and chemical compounds called flavanoids, all of which are good for our health and wellbeing.
“This study shows that, as part of a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and veg, a daily apple could help to reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease. “
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