A bowl of blackberries on a table with apples. Share on Pinterest
Eating blackberries, apples and other flavonol-rich foods can help lower your risk of developing frailty as you age by 20%. Paul Plews/Getty Images
  • New research suggests that a compound found in many fruits and vegetables can help keep you strong as you get older.
  • The study found that the odds of developing frailty were reduced by 20% for every 10mg of flavonols consumed per day.
  • Experts say this is due to the dietary compound’s anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Individuals can consume more flavonols by eating foods like apples, blackberries, broccoli, and red onion.

When it comes to health, there are certain things you expect to happen as you age, like a decline in physical fitness, hearing loss, and the development of frailty.

Now, new research has found that eating flavonol-rich foods, like apples and blackberries, may lower your chances of developing the latter.

The study, conducted at the Marcus Institute for Aging Research, found that for every 10mg higher intake of flavonols per day, the odds of developing frailty – a condition that carries a greater risk of falls, fractures, disability, hospitalization, and mortality and affects approximately 10-15% of older adults – were reduced by 20%.

In particular, the study concluded that foods like apples and blackberries that contain flavonoids called quercetin may be the most important for frailty prevention.

Commenting on the findings, the study authors said in a press release: “There may be some validity to the old saying, an apple a day keeps the doctor (or frailty) away.”

The researchers also noted that “individuals can easily consume 10mg of flavonols intake per day since one medium-sized apple has about 10 mg of flavonols.”

“Flavonols are one of 6 compounds that form part of the larger family of compounds known as flavonoids,” explained Dr. Shireen Kassam, co-founder of Plant Based Health Online. “This family of compounds is found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and in general they act as antioxidants in the body, protecting cells from oxidative stress by free radicals.”

Kassam noted that the consumption of flavonol-rich foods is associated with lower levels of inflammation and cellular stress resulting in a lower risk of various chronic conditions, including:

Where frailty is concerned, Kathleen Benson, a registered dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching, said flavonols prevent its development in several ways.

“Frailty is a condition that is most common with aging and signifies a general decline in physical function. There are a number of features that are typical of frailty, including loss of muscle mass, weight loss, difficulty mobilizing, and fatigue,” she noted.

While the exact understanding of how flavonols work in the body is still being researched, Benson said a variety of experiments have shown that flavonoids have antiallergic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antioxidant properties that may provide protection against frailty.

She noted that flavonols work alongside other phytonutrients in a variety of mechanisms across the body.

“Quercetin – one of the most researched flavonoids – for example, may help with age-related disorders, due to its potent antioxidant properties and how it works synergistically with other nutrients. Put simply, this means that quercetin naturally helps other chemical processes in the body do their job,” Benson explains.

For Kassam, the positive relationship between flavonol and frailty all hinges on one word: inflammation.

“The most likely reason for the positive findings is that flavonols are able to reduce the level of inflammation and cellular stress in the body, which can then protect against the development of frailty,” she reasoned.

“Most health conditions are driven by inflammation and when this becomes chronic it can result in physical changes that lead to frailty. Therefore, by reducing inflammation there is a lower likelihood of losing muscle mass and body weight and better functioning of the immune system,” Kassam surmised.

Ultimately, both experts agreed that the results of this study are a positive development; one that may help people decide what specific fruits and vegetables they should prioritize as they age.

Kassam noted that frailty can greatly impact your overall health and sense of well-being.

“The presence of frailty is associated with an increased risk of adverse outcomes from a variety of conditions including infections, increased risk of falls, need for hospitalization, and the need for long-term care,” she pointed out.

By eating a flavonol-rich diet, you may be able to negate some of these risks.

The good news is you don’t need to eat a whole lot of flavonol-rich foods to experience the benefits.

While it’s a good idea to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables to maintain overall health, Kassam says this study shows that even small quantities of this compound can have a positive effect.

“Just 10mg, found in one medium-sized apple, was shown to have a significant benefit. However, to maintain good health, the key is to eat a variety of healthy plant foods, incorporating fruit and vegetables of different colors,” she said.

So, now that you know how much you need, how can you increase your intake of flavonol-rich foods?

Benson recommended adding foods to your diet such as:

Crucially, she noted that you don’t have to make massive dietary changes.

“Tossing half a cup of kale in a mixed green salad and topping it with 1 tbsp diced red onion along with other preferred ingredients would put you just over 10mg,” she points out.

You could also add a handful of blueberries into overnight oats, slice up an apple (which has approximately 10mg quercetin) and pair it with your favorite nut butter, or snack on some broccoli.

You might find it offputting to focus solely on one dietary compound such as flavonol – and Kassam doesn’t advise it.

Instead, to slow age-related decline, she says it’s a good idea to look at your diet as a whole.

“Diets centered around healthy plant foods, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds is considered the best way to maintain good health with aging and will also help to reduce frailty,” she points out.