How gender and diet can affect the risk of frailty

28 April 2021.

Eating a well-balanced diet is an important part of staying healthy as we age. But many people eat less as they get older, and women in particular are making poorer food choices that could put them at risk of frailty, according to new research based on our 45 and Up Study.

Research snapshot

  • Men have better dietary behaviour as they age, while women’s diets get worse over time
  • These changes affect frailty – particularly for women, who are more likely to suffer from frailty as they age
  • Researchers suggest men and women may need to be targeted with different dietary advice to help prevent frailty
A woman's hands wash some fruit under the stream of water
Research shows that men and women who eat diets rich in fruits and grains have a lower risk of frailty as they age.

While often wrongly regarded as a natural result of ageing, frailty is a debilitating medical condition associated with reduced muscle strength, fatigue, weakness and cognitive decline. It brings with it an increased risk of injury and many sufferers need help with basic daily tasks.

Prevention is key, and a healthy diet is known to be an important factor in preventing frailty. But what’s less well known is how men and women eat as they age – and whether gender difference could be impacting our odds of future frailty.

Researchers from the University of NSW and the University of Technology Sydney set out to explore this, analysing the dietary patterns of 113,000 Australian over the age of 50 who were participating in the 45 and Up Study.

Thanks to a large population sample, and data that stretched back to 2006, researchers were able to track the dietary changes of both men and women over the long term.

Interestingly, they found that men were more likely to have better diets as they aged, while women’s eating habits got worse. Reasons for this were unclear, but researchers suggest it may be that more women are living with disease and poorer health than men, which puts them at greater risk of poor nutrition.

These changes in diet affect the odds of frailty, with results showing that females were more likely to suffer from frailty than men – particularly women over the age of 80 who were widowed, with low education levels and from low socioeconomic areas.

Conversely, men and women who had diets rich in fruits, grains, or ate a variety of foods, had a low risk of frailty. Furthermore, women who added lean meat and poultry to their diet, were less frail.

These results show how important it is to view frailty through the prism of gender. They also support previous research that shows eating a variety of healthy foods is one key to preventing frailty.

The study authors suggest that developing dietary advice tailored to each gender could go some way towards preventing frailty.

Read the full study here.

The 45 and Up Study is the largest ongoing study of healthy ageing in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s made possible thanks to 250,000 dedicated participants across NSW, who are kindly sharing their health information with us to help create a healthier Australia.

Find out how the Study is powering other research into mental health and cancer.

If you’d like to stay up-to-date on the study, sign up for the newsletter or explore more of the research here.