Writing in the more light-hearted Christmas edition of the BMJ medical journal, the scientists estimated how effective this Victorian health advice would be today in preventing heart disease among people over 50.
Using mathematical models, the researchers calculated that prescribing an apple a day to all adults aged 50 and over in the UK would prevent around 8,500 deaths from heart attacks and strokes every year.
They say this is similar to the 9,400 fewer heart deaths that would be seen if everyone over 50 who was not already taking them was given statins – modern cholesterol-lowering heart drugs.
This last figure uses the results of recent large study led by a different Oxford group which found that statins can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, including in people with low risk of heart problems.
Lead researcher Dr Adam Briggs of the BHF Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University says: ‘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”.’
He adds: ‘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.’
Although apples are more expensive than statins, the researchers conclude that an apple a day is able to match the more widespread use of modern medicine.
The researchers stress that no-one currently taking statins because they are at high risk of heart disease should stop, although they add: ‘by all means eat more apples’.
Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, an organisation which funds the research group, agrees: ‘The “apple a day” message has survived for over a century, though now we encourage people to eat five different fruits and vegetables a day, not just one apple.
‘However, while fruit is undoubtedly good for you, it shouldn’t replace vital heart medicines, such as statins, prescribed by your doctor.
‘This study reiterates that statins save lives. They are one of the safest medicines available and their benefits far outweigh any risks of side effects. If you’re unsure about your medication, speak to your doctor as there are often different types or doses you could try.’