It’s been said that success is falling nine times and getting up ten. But for older adults, the stakes are much higher, as falls are a leading cause of injury, health decline, and hospitalization.
To prevent falls, the National Institute of Health recommends staying physically active, especially with weight-bearing exercises that can strengthen bones, improving balance with activities such as yoga and Tai Chi, having hearing and vision tested regularly, and maintaining good health with an overall healthy diet and lifestyle.
The Mediterranean region is home to numerous hotspots of longevity, where adults live active, healthy lives well into their eighth, ninth, and tenth decades. Although a number of healthy lifestyle habits (like walking and strong social support networks) factor into their lower risk of disease and mortality, a healthy Mediterranean diet (which emphasizes fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts and fish) is also a key feature of daily life.
Research on the Mediterranean diet and risk of falls is still young, but the science is very encouraging. In a 2020 study published in Clinical Nutrition, researchers followed 2,071 Spanish adults aged 60+ for three and a half years to monitor their eating habits and falls. People most closely following a Mediterranean diet were 28% less likely to report a fall than those not following a Mediterranean diet. When looking at individual components of the Mediterranean diet that might be protective, eating at least two servings of vegetables per day was linked with a 37% lower risk of falling. However, vegetables alone are just one small aspect of a healthy lifestyle. Upon analyzing the results of the study, the authors concluded that “the total benefit from the Mediterranean diet is due to the accumulated or synergic impact of several foods rather than a single one.”
Similarly, in a study published in 2021 in Clinical Nutrition, researchers followed 794 Australian men (average age 81) for 5 years, monitoring their health and diet. People most closely following a Mediterranean diet were more likely to have more lean muscle in their legs and arms and were significantly less likely to have incident falls. Looking at the diets in more detail, researchers found that eating more monounsaturated fats (the type of fat in olive oil) was linked with a 24% lower risk of falls, and having a higher ratio of unsaturated fat to saturated fat (the type of fat found in red meat and butter) was linked with a 28% lower risk of falls.
In addition to the Mediterranean diet’s direct relationship with a lower risk of falls, the Mediterranean diet also has numerous other benefits that could in turn reduce fall risk down the road. Diabetes, heart disease, and certain medications can all impact balance, which may lead to falls. Eating a Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of these chronic diseases, thus reducing the risk of balance problems. Additionally, people who follow a Mediterranean diet are less likely to experience bone fractures, meaning that if a fall does occur, it might not be as risky.
When it comes to setting the foundation for healthy aging, there’s no downside to transitioning to a healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet, which features vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, fish, olive oil, and fermented dairy foods, and is lower in red and processed meats and added sugars. To further reduce the risk of falls, talk to your healthcare provider about what types of activities and movement might be best for you – from walking, to weight training, to Tai Chi, to yoga, there are a number of healthy ways to stay active, build strength, and build community.