Eating These Foods Daily Might Help Reduce the Risk of Frailty by 20%, a Recent Study Suggests

Is it really true what they say about an apple a day?

apple, kale and blueberries on purple gradient background
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Many health tips focus on extending your life span. This is an important goal, but there's a wave of interest lately in lifestyle habits that can lengthen your "health span." In other words, the amount of healthy, vibrant years you're able to live.

One of the biggest barriers that keeps a life span from feeling healthy is "frailty," a term for a medical condition that increases your risk for falls, fractures, the need for long-term care and early death. According to 2022 estimates in BMC Geriatrics, 10% of adults ages 50 to 64 are already frail, and the syndrome becomes increasingly common with age. Nearly 44% of adults over age 65 meet the criteria for frailty. (The above study looked at adults in England.)

New Research on Diet and Frailty

A team of researchers from the Netherlands and the U.S. set out to determine if any meal plans might be able to delay or prevent the onset of frailty. An overall higher-quality diet and eating enough protein are usually the Rx for reducing risk for frailty, but the new research hints that another component of food can move the needle as well.

According to the research published April 23, 2023, in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, each additional 10 milligrams of flavonols per day you consume reduces your risk for frailty by 20%. Flavonols are a type of flavonoid, plant compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

What This Health Study Found

Using data from the Framingham Heart Study, a prospective cohort study involving middle-aged and older adults that's been ongoing for the past 74 years, the scientists started with insights from 5,124 individuals. Nearly 3,030 subjects completed dietary questionnaires via the Willett Food Frequency Questionnaire at the start, and 1,826 had frailty assessments at the baseline and follow-up stages. (Losing 10 pounds or more in the past year, feeling exhausted most or more than half the time, walking slowly, weak grip strength and low levels of physical activity were all factors researchers assessed for when determining frailty.)

The researchers ended up with a pool of 1,701 participants to analyze; 55.5% were women and the average age was 58.4 years. Taking a cue from previous research that suggests flavonoids may tame oxidative stress (a factor involved in cell aging) and therefore decrease levels of chronic inflammation and the development of frailty, the scientists zoomed in on how many flavonoids each person consumed.

Reviewing food intake from the past year, the scientists tabulated intake (milligrams per day) of a variety of flavonoids. The average daily flavonoid intake was 309 milligrams, and the average intake of quercetin was 9 milligrams per day.

At the time of the 12-year follow-up, 224 participants had developed frailty. After controlling for smoking status, caloric intake and the presence or absence of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, the team found that people were 3% less likely to be frail for every 50 milligrams more flavonoids they consumed. This was not a statistically significant shift, the scientists admit.

That said, consuming 10 milligrams per day more of flavonols, a subgroup of flavonoids that includes quercetin, kaempferol and myricetin, was associated with a 20% reduced risk for frailty. One flavonol in particular, called quercetin—found in fruits and vegetables like apples, dark berries and kale—was found to be particularly potent. Each additional 10 milligrams of dietary quercetin consumed per day was associated with a 35% lower risk of frailty.

"Specifically, higher quercetin intake was the flavonoid that had the strongest association with frailty prevention," the study authors tell Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research News, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical school.

To put this into perspective, one medium apple has about 10 milligrams of quercetin, the researchers point out. "There may be some validity to the old saying, an apple a day keeps the doctor [or frailty] away," the researchers add in the news release.

The Bottom Line

A new health study suggests that eating more flavonol-rich fruits and vegetables, such as apples, may help reduce risk for frailty as you age. Mount Sinai health experts add that dark berries and cherries, tea, sage, parsley, citrus fruits, olive oil and red wine are also strong sources of quercetin, one of the most beneficial forms of flavonols, according to this study.

The scientists acknowledge that more research is needed to confirm the results among more diverse and larger pools of participants. They also hope to dive into whether dietary flavonols can be part of an effective multifaceted treatment program for frailty that's been already diagnosed. As we continue to learn more, it's easy—and tasty—to crank up your quercetin consumption with these 21 healthy apple recipes and our favorite 16 recipes using frozen berries.

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