The People's Perspective on Medicine

Will a Mediterranean Diet Fight Frailty?

Some doctors are now recommending a Mediterranean dietary pattern for their older patients to ward off frailty. Can you benefit, too?
Senior couple having fun and eating at restaurant during travel – Mature man and woman wife in old city town bar during active elderly vacation – Happy retirement concept with retired people together

Is a Mediterranean diet the secret to longevity in Italy and Greece? We don’t actually know, but doctors are collecting evidence that a Mediterranean diet can help older Americans avoid frailty (Voelker, JAMA, online April 25, 2018).

What Is a Mediterranean Diet?

While people around the Mediterranean have different cuisines, there are some fundamentals that they share. This dietary pattern is rich in vegetables and fruits and emphasizes legumes like beans, lentils and chickpeas. Whole grains, seeds and nuts are important components of the diet, and the principal fat is olive oil. People following this diet eat very little sugar and not much meat, though they consume some fish and may drink moderate amounts of wine with their meals. (You can learn more about how to follow a Mediterranean diet from our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies.In it, we provide details on the Mediterranean diet and what to eat to follow this eating pattern. You may also wish to read some related posts here and here.)

What Do We Mean by Frailty?

As people grow older, their appetites shrink and they may lose weight, cut back on physical activity, walk more slowly and become exhausted easily. This is the definition of frailty. Frail individuals are less mobile and more susceptible to falls and hospitalization. They are also more likely to die within the near term.

Now doctors say people who stick to a Mediterranean diet are much less likely to become frail. Together with physical activity, this way of eating helps people maintain muscle mass and stay healthy.

Dining Together:

Another important aspect of the Mediterranean lifestyle is social engagement with family and friends. Often, people prepare and enjoy their meals together. That too seems to benefit the elderly. In fact, people of any age do better if they have good social support. When people grow older and lose lifelong partners and a caring community, they appear more susceptible to physical frailty (de Labra et al, BMC Geriatrics, March 7, 2018).

Benefits for the Brain:

Physical health is not all that seems to benefit from a Mediterranean style of eating. Previous research suggests that this dietary pattern can also boost the brain. Moreover, you don’t have to live in a country near the Mediterranean Sea to get the benefits. A study of 967 older adults in Scotland found that those consuming more fruits, vegetables, olive oil, beans, fish and whole grains had less brain shrinkage over three years (Neurology, Jan. 4, 2017).

A Mediterranean-Type Diet and Your Brain:

In the study, 562 people without dementia went through MRI imaging of the brain when they were 73. Four hundred of them had a second MRI scan three years later when they were 76.

Those whose usual dietary habits did not follow Mediterranean diet recommendations lost more brain volume in those three years. Fish and meat consumption was not related to changes in brain volume.

What the Study Did NOT Show:

This study of older Scots wasn’t able to determine which component of the Mediterranean diet is most protective. It is possible that a combination of fresh produce and olive oil is required. It also did not establish a causal connection between diet and brain volume, as it was not a randomized trial.

The researchers did not report cognitive testing results on these subjects. As a result, we don’t know if bigger brain volume indicates better brain power. The study does suggest, however, that the Mediterranean diet that helps your heart is also good for your brain.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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I keep reading, here and elsewhere, that the Mediterranean diet includes whole grains. Can anyone give me examples of whole grains traditionally eaten by folks in Mediterranean countries? I’m thinking of risotto, paella rice, bread, croissants, pasta – none of those are typically whole grain, to my knowledge, although of course you can make them that way. So what is the whole grain part of the diet? My doctor recommends this diet, but I avoid refined wheat and white rice.

I don’t believe that the Mediterranean diet is the only factor. I am from Spain but live in the USA now. My husband and I recently spent 3 months in Spain visiting my family and we walked every where. Every morning and every evening you can see older people strolling the streets. A 45 minutes walk twice a day is the norm.

In addition to strong families ties, older adults have a full social calendar from enjoyment classes to trips with piers of their own age.

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