Strongly adhering to the traditional Mediterranean diet during old age could be the key to helping people live longer, a new study suggested. Researchers analyzed the relationship between the diet and mortality in a large sample of older adults from Italy and various other countries.

The study titled "Mediterranean diet and mortality in the elderly: a prospective cohort study and a meta-analysis" was published in the British Journal of Nutrition on Aug. 30.

Following a traditional Mediterranean diet involves a high intake of fruit, vegetables, fish, pulses, olive oil and cereals. It would also mean cutting down on meat and dairy products while allowing for a moderate amount of wine during meals.

"We already knew that the Mediterranean diet is able to reduce the risk of mortality in the general population, but we did not know whether it would be the same specifically for elderly people," said Marialaura Bonaccio, epidemiologist from the Institute for Research, Hospitalization and Health Care Neuromed in Italy.

With the help of a large study, the research team examined 5,200 older adults who were aged 65 or over. The individuals were all from the Molise region in Italy and were followed for eight years. In addition, researchers also included data from other epidemiological studies (based in different countries) to arrive at a total of 12,000 subjects.

A strong adherence to the diet was associated with a 25 percent lower risk of any cause of death.

"This effect remains also if we consider specifically cardiovascular or cerebrovascular mortality," Bonaccio added.

The aforementioned figure emerged after taking into account factors like age, gender, socioeconomic status, body weight, smoking etc.

The meta-analysis also found people who followed this diet were more likely to get enough exercise. When the influence of the diet was examined by excluding various components, the benefits appeared to reduce when data showed a rise in saturated fats, loss of fish, loss of moderate alcohol, or lesser cereals.

But the dietary data of the adults were sourced from food questionnaires, which they had filled out in the year before signing up. This presents a limitation as self-reported data is prone to inaccuracies, especially given that participants were only asked once. 

Naveed Sattar, a professor at the University of Glasgow who was not involved in the study, expressed caution as well. Since trials were not conducted, he noted how the findings suggested the diet could be good for older adults but was not able to prove this from observations alone. 

"It may be people who keep well have better diets, as appetite can be altered by ill health," he said. "I would say developing and maintaining healthier dietary habits is much more important earlier in life as once habits set in, they are usually maintained."