Successful Aging with the Mediterranean Diet

We all admire people who age well. Those who maintain fit physiques and sharp minds as they grow older may appear to be genetically blessed, but research shows that diet is a big factor when it comes to aging successfully.

There are numerous scientific studies to support the idea that diet, and a Mediterranean Diet in particular, can mitigate the negative effects of aging, such as chronic disease, frailty, cognitive impairment, and depression. Read on for a summary of some recent nutrition science research, and check out the health studies page on the Oldways website to learn more.”

Successful Aging
All of us probably imagine something slightly different when we think of ourselves aging successfully, but generally “successful aging” is being able to continue doing the things we love as we get older. We want to keep up our hobbies in retirement, have the strength and energy to play with our grandchildren, and continue learning new things until the end of our lives. A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine defines “healthy” aging as living past 70 with no major chronic diseases or major impairments in cognitive or physical function or mental health. The study found that middle-aged women who ate a Mediterranean Diet were significantly more likely to age healthfully.

Chronic Disease
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are the nation’s leading cause of death and disability. In a recent study, researchers at Harvard found that people with the greatest adherence to the Mediterranean Diet had the longest telomeres, a genetic indicator for healthy aging. Short telomeres indicate greater risk for chronic disease. 

Frailty
A combination of exhaustion, muscle weakness, low physical activity, slow walking speed, and weight loss make up the term “frailty”. We’ve all seen older people become frailer with age. Researchers at the Autonomous University of Madrid found that adherence to the Mediterranean Diet was significantly associated with a decreased risk of frailty among community dwelling older adults. Eating more fish and fruit in particular amplified these effects.

Cognitive Impairment
Cognitive impairment may be one of the most upsetting effects of aging. After conducting a review of 12 published scientific studies that examined the relationship between a Mediterranean Diet and cognitive function, a research group in the UK found that there was a correlation between a Mediterranean Diet with slower mental decline, as well as a decreased risk for Alzheimer’s. 

Adding to that body of research, an Australian study found that among participants with genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s, those who followed a Mediterranean Diet showed better executive function, the set of mental processes used in planning, strategizing, remembering details, and managing time and space. A Western diet, on the other hand, was associated with poorer executive function. 

Depression
Unfortunately, loneliness and depression often go hand and hand with aging. Seniors start to lose more of their loved ones, and may experience a sense of loss of control with the onset of disability and illness. A study from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that following a Mediterranean Diet reduced the risk of developing depressive symptoms in older age. They pointed to B-vitamins (found in whole grains and legumes), antioxidant nutrients (found in vegetables, fruits, eggs, legumes, and nuts), and healthy fats (found in nuts, olive oil, and fatty fish) in particular as having a significant positive impact on mental health.

Summary
The Mediterranean Diet is a delicious, often affordable way to eat healthfully. It’s also an easy, smart investment in successful aging. Following a Mediterranean Diet can extend lives and reduce the risk of chronic disease and other unfavorable consequences of getting older. It’s never too late to make the transition! A balanced, plant-based diet can reduce symptoms of current health conditions too. It’s good news that even seniors can tailor their diets to control how they age — thanks to the Mediterranean Diet it’s not up to luck!

Interested in making the transition to a Mediterranean Diet to live a healthier, longer life? The Oldways 4-Week Mediterranean Diet Menu Plan contains simple tips and recipes for eating healthfully and is available in our webstore. Also check out the recipes below or this week’s bookstore for Mediterranean cookbooks and other reference materials.

Post from the FROM MEDITERRANEAN FOODS ALLIANCE e-Newsletter Vol. VII No. 4 | 2/20/15