An analysis of previously published studies by British researchers found that following the Mediterranean diet can radically reduce the risk of frailty in the elderly.
As a result this also cuts the chances of associated diseases, depression and falls among elderly people, the study found.
The findings, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, suggest that a diet based primarily on plant-based foods – such as fruits and veg, whole grains, legumes, fish and nuts – may help keep people healthy and independent as they age.
Doctors say that frailty is common among older people and its prevalence is increasing as the population ages.
A Mediterranean diet rich in fresh fruit and veg halves the risk of older people becoming frail
People who followed a Mediterranean diet the most were overall less than half as likely to become frail
The condition sees older people feeling unnecessarily low in energy and suffering weight loss and weak muscle strength.
As a result, they are then more likely to suffer from several health problems – including falls, fractures, hospitalisation, nursing home placement, disability, dementia, and even premature death.
But avoiding frailty increases the chances of maintaining independence and lessens the likelihood of needed to be placed in care.
In addition, medical experts warned that in general, frailty was also associated with a lower quality of life and depression.
But according to the new study, nutrition plays a “crucial role” in whether an older person becomes frail.
Study co-leader Dr Kate Walters, from University College London where the study was carried out, said: “We found the evidence was very consistent that older people who follow a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of becoming frail.
“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 research team at UCL examined whether following a healthy diet might decrease the risky of an older person becoming frail.
They analysed evidence from all published studies examining associations between adherence to a Mediterranean diet and development of frailty in older people.
The analysis included 5789 people in four studies in France, Spain, Italy, and China.
The research team found that the Mediterranean diet did indeed help older people maintain muscle strength, activity, weight, and energy levels.
The Mediterranean diet has been linked with good health, including a healthier heart
Co-leader of the research, Dr Gotaro Kojima said: “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.”
More research was needed to establish the causality of the link.
Although older people who followed a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of becoming frail, the researchers said that it was unclear whether other characteristics of the people who followed the diet may also have helped to protect them.
Dr Walters added: “While the studies we included adjusted for many of the major factors that could be associated – for example, 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.
“We now need large studies that look at whether increasing how much you follow a Mediterranean diet will reduce your risk of becoming frail.”
The health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet have become more well established in recent years.
It incorporates the traditional healthy living habits of people from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including France, Greece, Italy and Spain.
A Mediterranean diet helped older people maintain muscle strength, weight, and energy levels
The ‘Med diet’ varies by country and region, so it has a range of definitions. But in general, it’s high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. It usually includes a low intake of meat and dairy foods.
A spokesman for NHS England explained: “The Mediterranean diet has been linked with good health, including a healthier heart.
“You can make your diet more Mediterranean-style by eating plenty of starchy foods, such as bread and pasta, with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
“In addition, include fish in your diet, less meat and choose products made from vegetable and plant oils, such as olive oil.”
The Mediterranean diet is very similar to the government’s healthy eating advice, which is set out in the Eatwell Guide.
The guide shows what foods are needed for a healthy, balanced diet and how much you should eat of each food group.
It is set out on the Government’s official healthy eating website: https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/the-eatwell-guide.aspx