New research shows the Mediterranean diet is a healthy choice for adults at any age.

Share on Pinterest

Even if you’re in your golden years, it’s never too late to consider changing your diet.

Nutritionists have touted the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for years, and new research suggests that it’s beneficial for adults of any age.

The Mediterranean diet was associated with lower all-cause mortality and prolonged survival in elderly people, according to a study published this month in the British Journal of Nutrition.

“We already knew that the Mediterranean diet is able to reduce the risk of mortality in the general population, but we did not know whether it would be the same specifically for elderly people,” said Marialaura Bonaccio, PhD, researcher at the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention, and first author of the study Italian Istituto Neurologico Mediterraneo Neuromed (Institute for Research, Hospitalization, and Health Care).

But it does appear to do exactly that.

Bonaccio and her team found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet resulted in a 25 percent lower risk of mortality of all-cause death in a large sample of elderly individuals. Additionally, through a meta-analysis of seven other studies on the Mediterranean diet, they found that the closer individuals followed the diet, the greater the health payoff.

To reach these conclusions, researchers took a two-pronged approach in their study: Designing their own prospective study of the elderly and the Mediterranean diet based on data from the Moli-sani study, an Italian population cohort study established between 2005 and 2010. They also conducted a meta-analysis of seven other studies that looked at the effects of the Mediterranean diet in elderly populations.

For their own prospective study, they recruited a cohort of more than five-thousand individuals age 65 or older in southern Italy, and followed up with these individuals for up to eight years, on average.

Members of this cohort had their general health assessed, including activity level, cholesterol, BMI, smoking status, and blood pressure. Using a Mediterranean diet score developed by researchers in 2003, researchers assessed how closely individuals adhered to the Mediterranean diet from 0 to 9, with 0 being the least adherent, and 9 being the most.

Elderly people who adhered more closely to the diet had better cardiovascular health, and their risk of death from cardiovascular disease was reduced.

A single point increase using the Mediterranean diet scale was associated with a five percent reduction in risk of death.

“The Mediterranean diet lowers overall mortality risk in a dose-response, progressive way. In other words, the more you follow the Mediterranean diet, the greater the gain in terms of mortality risk reduction,” said Bonaccio.

The traditional Mediterranean diet is characterized by a high intake of fruits, vegetables, and legumes; primarily unrefined grains; a high intake of monounsaturated fat (from extra virgin olive oil); a moderately high intake of fish; low consumption of red meat, poultry, and sugar; moderate dairy consumption — typically cheese and yogurt; and a moderate intake of ethanol (in the form of wine).

However, because the diet is consumed by different peoples and cultures throughout the Mediterranean region, there is a significant variety in the individual components of the diet that are consumed.

What’s clear is that despite these differences, there is a general benefit to the diet that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

And Americans could learn a thing or two from it when it comes to eating healthy.

“I recommend it all the time and feel it’s one of the more perfect diets available amongst a lot of diets that are not always easy to sustain. It allows healthy carbs (many diets drastically limit carbs and that can be tough for some people) as well as healthy fats and animal protein in the form of fish and chicken,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, a licensed, registered dietitian, who is a wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, told Healthline.

She does, however, caution that some older individuals may need more protein in their diet than is typically found in the Mediterranean diet in order to preserve muscle mass and keep from wasting.

Both Kirkpatrick and Bonaccio also say that the Mediterranean diet is about more than just changing the foods you eat: It has greater cultural implications such as portioning and lifestyle that individuals living outside of Mediterranean areas may not recognize.

“Mediterranean diet is not just a shopping list of foods,” said Bonaccio. It also includes, “things like sharing foods (conviviality), seasonality, and ways of combining foods. As an example, a typical Mediterranean way of eating pasta is with legumes or vegetables.”

Individuals who are interested in making some changes in their diet inspired by the Mediterranean, can checkout Healthline’s own meal plan ideas, which have some great recipes for things like zucchini blossoms with bulgar, or grilled fish in saffron sauce.

“For starters, just start getting more color in your diet. That means a lot more fruit and vegetables. This is key,” said Kirkpatrick, “Then swap some of your more snack options (like pretzels, chips, et cetera) for nuts and olives, and then, finally, give the red meat a break for wild fatty fish and lean skinless poultry. I think these are truly huge steps towards improving health.”