Adopting Mediterranean diet in later life may postpone death

New study finds people aged 65 or older who adhere to diet rich in fish, nuts and fresh vegetables have 25% lower risk of death

olive oil
(Image credit: David Silverman/Getty Images)

Scientists have found that it's never too late to adopt a Mediterranean diet, in a new study that revealed healthy eating still offers benefits in older age and could even reduce the risk of death.

The Italian study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, analysed the relationship between the traditional Mediterranean diet - comprised of a mix of fruit, vegetables, fish, olive oil, and moderate wine consumption - and mortality, in a sample group of 5,000 people over 65 years of age and followed up for eight years. Researchers also assessed another 12,000 people from studies conducted in six other countries.

According to the findings, when factors including age, sex, activity levels, socio-economic status, smoking and BMI were taken into account, “those with a high adherence to the diet (scoring 7-9 on the scale) had a 25% lower risk of any cause of death than those who only scored 0-3”, reports The Guardian.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Study author Marialaura Bonaccio said: “Our research considers nutrition as a whole, but it is still interesting to understand which foods mainly contribute to the 'driving' effect of the Mediterranean diet.”

The scientists believe “good fats” like olive oil, which are used in high amounts in the Mediterranean diet, are behind the eating plan's benefits. Notably, the researchers also found that a “moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages, if inserted in a Mediterranean food context, is a protective factor for our health.”

“The novelty of our research is to have focused our attention on a population over 65 years old,” said Bonaccio.

“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.”

But the team does note that the study cannot prove the Mediterranean diet is directly responsible for the effect, only that there is a link.

“If you start a good healthy lifestyle when you are young, probably your benefit will be even greater,” said Bonaccio, “But even if you are old and you start having a healthy lifestyle including diet you can [live longer].”

Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow who was not involved in the study, told The Guardian he remained cautious.

“[The] study only suggests [the Mediterranean diet] might be good into older life but it does not prove it as all the data in this paper are from observations and not trials,” he said. “It may be people who keep well have better diets, as appetite can be altered by ill health.”

“I would say developing and maintaining healthier dietary habits is much more important earlier in life as once habits set in, they are usually maintained.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.