Healthy aging is not just about the years in your life, but the life in your years. From Ikaria, Greece to Sicily and Sardinia, Italy, the Mediterranean region is home to some of the longest-living people in the world – people who thrive into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s, with relatively low levels of disease. By embracing a Mediterranean diet, filled with aging-friendly foods like olive oil, fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, seafood, and nuts, you too can experience the health benefits of this flavorful and celebrated cuisine.
Healthy aging is one of the strongest areas of Mediterranean diet research. In an analysis of 4 studies encompassing 5,789 older adults (ages 60+), closely following a Mediterranean diet was linked with a 38% lower risk of frailty than not following a Mediterranean diet. Recent studies have also found that a Mediterranean diet is linked with better lung function in aging (even after adjusting for factors like age, smoking history, and physical activity) as well as a 20% lower risk of dementia and a healthier gut microbiome. In each of these studies, researchers weren’t looking at the diet participants ate during childhood. Rather, they were looking at the current diet participants ate during the study period, as older (60+) adults.
In another study, to see how the Mediterranean diet relates to polypharmacy (the need for multiple medications) and cardiometabolic disorders like obesity and heart disease, researchers studied 476 elderly adults in Rome. Those not following a Mediterranean diet (medium-low adherence) were more likely to need multiple medications, and have high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and diabetes. The authors conclude that following a Mediterranean diet “might potentially delay the onset of age-related health deterioration and reduce the need of multiple medications.”
Hitting the Reset Button on Your Diet
Regardless of the eating habits you picked up over the years, it is never too late to begin the journey to healthy eating. In a 2018 study following more than 3,000 middle-aged French adults over the course of 15 years, those most closely following a Mediterranean diet in middle age were signiﬁcantly more likely to age healthfully, meaning that they were free of chronic disease, depression and pain, and were able to live independently. Similarly, in a 2019 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers analyzed the eating habits of 16,948 middle-aged adults, then assessed their brain function 20 years later. Those most closely following a Mediterranean diet were 33% less likely to have cognitive impairment than those not following a Mediterranean diet.
Likewise, in a 2017 study of approximately 2,000 adults (average age = 48 years), those with higher-quality diets in mid-adulthood (most closely following a Mediterranean Diet, DASH Diet, or scoring higher on the Healthy Eating Index – all of which prioritize vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, and limit sweets and processed or red meats) had lower total body fat and a lower BMI. Maintaining a healthy level of body fat is important, as it can prevent fat tissue from accumulating in the liver, thus leading to health complications down the road.
Disease Management with a Mediterranean Diet
A healthy Mediterranean diet is a key element of disease prevention. For people who might already be dealing with conditions like diabetes or heart disease, does what we eat really make a difference at that point? The answer is a resounding YES!
Even if you already have chronic diseases, it’s never too late to improve your health. In a study of 3,562 adults with heart disease, to see how diﬀerent eating patterns relate to further health complications down the road (like death or heart attacks), those most closely following a Mediterranean diet were 20% less likely to die from all causes and 22% less likely to have a cardiovascular event (like a heart attack) during the 7-year follow up. A Mediterranean diet has also been linked with significantly slower disease progression and better survival in prostate cancer, as well as a significantly lower risk of breast cancer relapse.
Diabetes management can also benefit from a Mediterranean diet. A 2020 review of individuals with type 2 diabetes found that the Mediterranean diet is linked with a lower risk of diabetes complications, such as high blood pressure, inﬂammation, diseased blood vessels (angiopathy) and poor blood sugar control. Similarly, a 2019 study found that those following a Mediterranean diet with olive oil were signiﬁcantly less likely to need new blood-sugar lowering medications at the 3-year and 5-year follow-up than the low-fat control group.
Whether you are in your 20’s, 40’s, 60’s, or beyond, it is never too late to start eating and living the Mediterranean way. Take control over your health by immersing yourself in the delicious and nutritious Mediterranean diet. Whether you try a new recipe, travel to a Mediterranean destination, or simply make an effort to choose more Mediterranean foods, the Mediterranean diet is about enjoying the journey, not just the destination.