Falls and fractures. Getting weaker. Memory loss. Inability to take care of oneself. Nursing homes. This is the grim future that many people see as they get older. The truth is that poor lifestyle choices, heart attacks, diabetes and other health problems DO increase the risk of this future.
Is there anything we can do to prevent it? Is there any way to prevent this grim future from becoming a reality?
In January an article was published by a group who wanted to look at diet as a risk factor for frailty as people age. They analyzed 4 studies and found that there is a link between the Mediterranean diet and decreased risk of frailty.
What is frailty? I think everybody can look at one older person and classify them as “frail” and another older person and classify them as “robust.” Frailty is difficult to define! However, it is generally described as a syndrome that gets more common with older age. It is the accumulation of physical deficits and low physiologic reserves that make it hard to recover from and increase the risk of injury and illness.
There are a number of ways doctors measure frailty but one of the more commonly used scales uses 5 criteria:
- unintentional weight loss
- self-reported exhaustion
- slow walking speed
- low physical activity
People who are more frail are more likely to fall, more likely to have a fracture, more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to wind up in a nursing home and to die prematurely. So whatever we can do to prevent frailty, we need to do it!
We know that nutrition is very important in preventing frailty. Lots of research has been done on using nutrition to prevent frailty, and most of the research shows that it’s the overall quality of the diet, not individual nutrients, that is most important. Preventing nutrient deficiencies and getting enough protein seem to be particularly critical.
Dr. Kojima and his colleagues found that people were less likely to become frail if they followed a Mediterranean diet. They analyzed research articles published from China, France, Spain and Italy that compared risk of frailty with dietary patterns. People who ate a more Mediterranean-style diet were less likely to become frail over the study period (an average of about 4 years).
What is the Mediterranean diet? The Mediterranean diet consists of mostly plant foods (like vegetables, fruits, beans, cereals, root vegetables, nuts and seeds), olive oil as the main source of added fat, and small amounts of dairy, eggs, fish and poultry. Alcohol (particularly red wine) is consumed in low to moderate amounts.
This study showed that the more the participants ate a Mediterranean diet, the less likely they were to become frail over the follow-up period. The authors believe that the effect may be tied to inflammation. More frail individuals generally have higher inflammatory markers, and the Mediterranean diet is known to produce less inflammation in the body.
What are the limitations of the study? Well this study was an analysis of four other studies, all of which were observational. That means they asked people what they ate, then watched to see what happened over a certain period of time. They didn’t assign people to eat a Mediterranean diet. It’s possible that there are other characteristics of people who choose to eat a Mediterranean-style diet that also contribute to lower risk of frailty. This is called confounding, and is difficult to assess in studies like this.
Still, there’s a principle of behavior change that if you want what someone else has, you find out how they got it and do that same thing. If the goal is to avoid becoming frail as you age, then eating the Mediterranean diet is one good way to begin.
Not sure how to start? Here is a link to Amazon’s list of top-rated Mediterranean diet guides for beginners. The food is tasty, the recipes are simple and the health benefits are amazing. Please consider giving the Mediterranean diet a try!