Researchers examined data on 1,643 adults aged 65 and older who didn’t suffer from frailty and who provided detailed information about their eating habits. After an average follow-up of 3.5 years, 89 participants, or 5.4 percent, developed frailty.
People whose diets had the lowest amounts of vitamin B6 at the start of the study were 2.8 times more likely to develop frailty by the end of the study period than participants who consumed the most foods rich in vitamin B6 such as chicken, fish, tofu, sweet potatoes and bananas.
Individuals who had the lowest levels of vitamin E in their diets were 2.3 times more likely to develop frailty than older adults whose diets contained the most foods rich in vitamin E, including sunflower seeds and almonds.
And participants who got the lowest levels of vitamin C at the start of the study were 93 percent more likely to develop frailty than individuals who consumed the most foods rich in vitamin C such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lemons, and lychees.
“A balanced diet that contains plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and some sources of protein offers nutrients that meet the body’s requirements,” said lead study author Teresa Balboa-Castillo of the School of Medicine at Universidad de La Frontera in Temuco, Chile.
The study didn’t include anyone taking vitamin supplements.
“There is no evidence of frailty prevention in those taking multi-supplements,” Balboa-Castillo said by email. “On the other hand, a well-balanced diet is safe and can prevent other physical impairments.”
Frailty is a measure of decreased physiological function that can involve problems like weakness, exhaustion, slow walking speed or low activity levels. Even though frailty is often considered a hallmark of aging, patient age isn’t necessarily a good indicator of whether they may have the characteristics of frailty.
In the current study, researchers assessed frailty based on unintentional weight loss, exhaustion, weakness measured by grip strength and slow walking speed.
Compared to non-frail individuals, people who developed frailty were more likely to be women, older, less educated and obese. People who developed frailty also spent more time watching television and had a higher frequency of chronic health problems, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how dietary vitamins might directly impact the risk of frailty.
Another limitation is that researchers didn’t do blood tests to measure vitamin levels, which could help verify how nutrient-rich their diets really were, the study team notes in Age & Ageing.
Still, the results add to growing evidence suggesting that the nutritional content of people’s diets can influence their risk of frailty as they age, said Roger Fielding of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
“I think these data confirm that poor diet quality is associated with an increased risk of frailty,” Fielding, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “I know of no evidence to suggest that taking a multi-vitamin would be effective in this setting but certainly increasing your daily intake of fruits and vegetables may be prudent.”
A little exercise wouldn’t hurt, either.
“We know that exercise/regular physical activity can reverse/improve some of the components of the frailty syndrome and may reduce the risk of developing frailty,” Fielding said.