6 Ways the Mediterranean Diet Helps You Live Longer, According to a Dietitian

Following the Mediterranean diet can increase your life expectancy and reduce the risk of early death.

Mediterranean Diet foods
Photo: Leigh Beisch

The Mediterranean diet, also known as Med diet, is what many consider the gold standard when it comes to eating. This is because olive oil intake and plant-rich eating continue to be credited with improving health and reducing risk for many chronic diseases down the road. A 2022 study published in PLOS Medicine suggested that adopting a Mediterranean diet can even add years—up to a decade—to your life!

The Norwegian study considered meta-analyses' results and data collected in the Global Burden of Disease, which examined causes of death, prevalence of 369 diseases and injuries, and 87 risk factors in over 204 countries and territories. They used these factors to create a highly predictive model that calculates a person's lifespan based on their diet. Researchers then used the model to estimate an individual's lifespan when eating the standard American diet and compared that to the lifespan estimate for that same individual when they followed an "optimized diet" which mirrored the Mediterranean diet.

Check out the impact they found that eating a Mediterranean diet pattern has on one's longevity:

  • An increase in life expectancy of 13.0 and 10.7 years in males and females, respectively, when adopted at age 20.
  • An increase in life expectancy of 11.7 and 10.0 years for men and women, respectively, when adopted at age 40.
  • An increase in life expectancy of 8.8 and 8.0 years for men and women, respectively, when adopted at age 60.
  • An increase in life expectancy of 3.4 years for both sexes when adopted at age 80.

These predictions are impressive and highlight the powerful influence that diet has on health. But how exactly does following the Mediterranean diet add these extra years?

Experts agree that it's the collective synergy from all of the components in the diet: things such as antioxidants, phytochemicals, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, not one specific food group. These components work together to improve health and, more importantly, reduce disease risk, which adds years to your life.

Here are six (of the many) ways that the Mediterranean diet helps you live longer.

1. Reduces Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke

According to a review published in 2019 in Circulation Research, the lower rate of heart disease in those living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea during the 1950s and '60s first caught the attention of U.S. researchers. These results caused them to examine the traditional Mediterranean diet. More than 60 years later, research continues to suggest that adherence to the Mediterranean diet significantly reduces one's risk of heart attack, stroke and coronary artery disease. However, it's important to note that the Med diet can be adopted regardless of your geographic setting and can be personalized to your needs, preferences and health condition.

2. Minimizes Effects of Stress and Quells Inflammation

While studies in humans are limited, a 2018 study published in Nutrients found that following the Mediterranean diet appears to counteract stress-related inflammation. Stress increases your cortisol levels which, in turn, increases inflammatory blood markers. This can turn into an inflammatory storm which can lead to oxidative damage by free radicals, hormone imbalances and a worn-out immune system that's more susceptible to disease.

3. Lowers Cancer Risk and Recurrence

Research published in 2019 in Nutrients pointed to the diet's high level of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds as having a protective effect against cancerous cell mutations. Additionally, these compounds can reduce the growth and metastasis of cancer cells. Further, a Mediterranean diet may lower the risk of recurrence and mortality for some cancers such as breast, colorectal and prostate, per a 2022 article published in Nutrients.

4. Decreases Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Complications

A diagnosis of type 2 diabetes shortens the lifespan by six years, on average, due to complications and an increased heart disease risk. However, according to a 2020 article published in Nutrients, adherence to the Mediterranean diet lowers one's risk of developing T2D by 20%. For those who are diagnosed with or currently have T2D, research suggested that adopting the eating approach can reduce the risk of complications, decrease insulin resistance and lower A1C values.

5. Slows Cognitive Decline

Following the Mediterranean diet seems to slow age-related memory loss and cognitive decline, and the results were most significant for those who adhered closest to the eating approach. Even better, research published in Nutrients in 2021 suggested it is beneficial for those who don't currently show any signs of memory loss or dementia as well as those who do. Closely following the diet may also reduce the risk of age-related dementia progressing to Alzheimer's disease, per a 2021 study published in Neurology.

6. Promotes Bone Density

A handful of smaller studies suggest that the Med diet prevents fragility later in life by minimizing the expected bone and muscle loss associated with aging. At their annual meeting in 2018, the Endocrine Society presented study findings showing that higher adherence to the Med diet was associated with higher bone density and better bone health and muscle mass in postmenopausal females, independent of hormone therapy, smoking history and past or present exercise.

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