A diet well known for its link to heart benefits and longevity may also help elders boost gut health in a way that could fend off frailty and cognitive decline.

Investigators followed 1,200 adults aged 65 to 79 years who were either not frail, or who had pre-frailty symptoms. For 12 months, these participants followed a Mediterranean diet tailored to the elderly.

Elders who adhered to the diet had an increased amount of the gut flora that are associated with lower frailty risk and improved cognitive function. In addition, these healthy gut microorganisms are linked to a lower risk of disease-associated inflammation, said Paul W. O’Toole, Ph.D., from University College Cork, Ireland. Age and body mass index did not appear to affect the results.

Diet may make a significant difference in an elder’s long-term health, O’Toole and his colleagues concluded.

“Our findings support the feasibility of improving the habitual diet to modulate the gut microbiota, which in turn has the potential to promote healthier aging,” they wrote.

The traditional Mediterranean diet includes large amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, beans and grains, as well as olive oil and nuts.  Dairy products, eggs, fish and poultry are eaten in low to moderate amounts, according to the American Heart Association.

The study was published in the BMJ.