When older people eat a poor-quality diet, they may be increasing their odds of becoming frail, a recent study from the Netherlands suggests.
About the study
Researchers followed 2,154 older U.S. adults for four years. At the start, participants were between the ages of 70 and 81. They were either “robust,” because they didn’t appear to have any cognitive problems or issues with physical frailty, or “pre-frail,” because they only had one or two symptoms of frailty.
To be considered frail, participants had to have at least three of these five health issues: 1) unintentional weight loss of more than 5% of their body weight in the past 12 months, 2) weak hand grip strength or too much pain in joints to complete this assessment, 3) regular daytime exhaustion, 4) slow walking speed and 5) physical inactivity.
Overall, 277 participants became frail. And among the 1,020 who started out in robust condition, 629 either became frail or developed pre-frailty.
People with poor quality diets were almost twice as likely as those with high-quality diets to become frail, and a medium-quality diet was associated with a 40% higher risk of frailty.
What is frailty?
According to the Canadian Frailty Network, frailty isn’t simply getting older. The risk of becoming frail increases with age, but the two are not the same. Those living with frailty are at higher risk for deterioration of their health and death than what is expected based on their age alone.
Frailty is a state of health where the person’s overall well-being and ability to function independently are reduced and vulnerability to deterioration are increased. People who are frail tend to spend more time in hospital, are less likely to return to their own home, are more likely to need care support if they do go home and are also likely to have extended stays in long-term care.
How diet may prevent frailty
It’s thought that protein intake is important to reduce frailty risk, because sufficient protein is needed to slow the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with aging.
But that’s not what the study found.
A lower intake of vegetable protein intake was associated with a higher risk of “robust” people developing “pre-frailty,” but it didn’t appear to influence whether they developed full-blown frailty. There was no meaningful difference in frailty risk based on total protein intake, animal protein intake or total calories consumed.
These findings suggest that the type of protein eaten may be important for preventing frailty.
Even if it is not certain that a higher protein intake prevents the development of frailty, sufficient protein intake is indeed important for older adults to maintain their muscle mass and strength.
Previous research has linked consuming animal protein to a lower risk of frailty. It’s possible the current study got different results because it examined protein based on total grams consumed daily, versus other studies that looked at this as a proportion of total calories.
The study relied on elderly people to accurately recall and report their eating habits over the previous year, which could be subject to error.
Another drawback is that it’s impossible to know whether a poor diet might have caused frailty or if the reverse is true and people started eating poorly after they became frail.
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