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Poor Diet Quality Tied to Frailty in Older Adults


FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2015 file photo, an elderly couple walks down a hall of a nursing home in Easton, Pa.
Poor Diet Quality Tied to Frailty in Older Adults
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A recent study suggests that a poor-quality diet may increase the chances of weakness in older people.

Researchers followed 2,154 older adults in the United States for four years. At the beginning of the study, the adults were between the ages of 70 and 81. Researchers placed each person into one of two groups – “robust” or “pre-frail.” Those who did not appear to have any mental problems or issues with physical frailty were considered “robust.” Those who only had one or two symptoms of frailty were called “pre-frail."

Two hundred seventy-seven of those who took part in the study became frail. Of the 1,020 who started out in robust condition, 629 either became frail or developed pre-frailty.

People in the study had to have at least three of five health issues to be considered frail. Those five issues were:

  • unintentional weight loss of more than 5% of their body weight in the past 12 months
  • weak or no hand strength
  • regular daytime tiredness
  • slow walking speed
  • and physical inactivity.

The researchers found that people with poor quality diets were almost two times as likely to become frail compared to those with high-quality diets. A medium-quality diet was linked to a 40 percent higher risk of frailty.

Researcher Linda Milou Hengeveld was the lead writer of the study. In an email, she told Reuters the researchers believed that protein intake might also be important to reduce frailty risk. She added that “sufficient protein intake is important to slow down the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with aging.”

But that is not what the study found.

Lower vegetable protein intake was linked with a higher risk of “robust” people developing “pre-frailty.” However, it did not appear to influence whether those people developed frailty. There was no meaningful difference in frailty risk based on total protein intake, animal protein intake or total calories in a person’s diet.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. It found that earlier research linked eating animal protein to a lower risk of frailty. But, it is possible the current study got different results because it examined protein based on the total amount eaten daily. Other studies looked at protein based on the percentage of total calories eaten.

One limitation of the study is that it depended on older people to correctly remember and report on their eating habits over the year before. The researchers noted that this might not provide a realistic report of how they ate.

Another issue is that it is impossible to know whether a poor diet might have caused frailty or if people started eating poorly after they became frail.

Kieran Reid is a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. He says following dietary suggestions may help older adults lower their risk of severe frailty.

U.S. dietary guidelines urge people to eat whole fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and dairy products and protein from many sources. The guidelines also advise against eating foods that contain a lot of salt, saturated fat and sugar.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Lisa Rapaport reported this story for the Reuters news service. Jonathan Evans adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

robust –adj. strong and healthy

frail –adj. having less than the normal amount of strength, easily damaged

symptom –n. a change in the body mind that shows disease is present

intake –n. the amount of food or drink that is taken into you body

calories –n. a measure of heat used to describe the amount of energy a food or drink will produce in the human body

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