Following a so-called Mediterranean diet is frequently attributed to a range of health benefits, from reducing the risk of heart disease to protecting against cognitive decline and dementia. A study published this week in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society gives credence to these beliefs and suggests such a diet may reduce the onset of frailty in older individuals.
According to the prestigious United States medical research facility the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet emphasises eating primarily plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts; replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil; using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavour foods; eating red meat no more than a few times a month; and eating fish and poultry at least twice a week.
A team led by Kate Walters and Gotaro Kojima from University College London, in Britain, studied the findings from previous research into associations between adherence to a Mediterranean diet and the development of frailty as people age.
Their analysis included 5789 people in four studies conducted in France, Spain, Italy and China.
Frailty is common among older people and is increasing as the population ages. Characteristics include low energy, weight loss and weakness. Frail individuals are more likely to experience falls, fractures, hospitalisation, nursing home placement, disability, dementia, and premature death.
“We found the evidence was very consistent, that older people who follow a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of becoming frail,” Walters says. “People who followed a Mediterranean diet the most were overall less than half as likely to become frail over a nearly four-year period, compared with those who followed it the least.”
The investigators note that the Mediterranean diet may help older individuals remain active and maintain muscle strength and energy levels.
“Our study supports the growing body of evidence on the potential health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, in our case for potentially helping older people to stay well as they age,” Kojima says.
Although older people who followed the food regime had a lower risk of becoming frail, it’s unclear whether other factors may have helped protect them.
“While the studies we included adjusted for many of the major factors that could be associated – for example, their age, gender, social class, smoking, alcohol, how much they exercised, and how many health conditions they had – there may be other factors that were not measured and we could not account for,” Walters says.
“We now need large studies that look at whether increasing how much you follow a Mediterranean diet will reduce your risk of becoming frail.