The most important thing an older adult can do for their body is to have eaten a healthy diet throughout their life, and it's never too late to start. A healthy diet is key to healthy aging. New research suggests that low levels of certain vitamins and antioxidants in older adults may make it harder to recover after a serious illness and lead to frailty.

Up to 25 percent of adults over the age of 65 and half of people over 80 are affected by frailty. After a serious illness or incident, such as a severe infection, a fall, cancer or major surgery, these seniors don't bounce back, and they experience an overall decline in their ability to function. Frailty is associated with an increased risk of poor health, disability and death. Even a trivial illness can bring it on in some people.

A healthy diet can provide the nutrients tracked in this study in most older adults, though it may be necessary to take a supplement to overcome deficiencies.

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin studied data from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) to determine the association between levels of vitamins B12, D and folate, as well as the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, with frailty.

These nutrients play important roles in the body. Vitamins B12 and folate function in many cellular processes in the body including energy metabolism and DNA repair. Vitamin D is important for bone health, muscle strength and mood. Lutein and zeaxanthin are antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory properties and are important for eye and brain health.

People with lower levels of lutein, zeaxanthin and vitamin D were more likely to be frail, but a lack of these nutrients was also associated with earlier stages of ‘pre-frailty, a condition that paves the way for frailty. Pre-frailty was also associated with low levels of vitamins B12 and folate. The more nutrients a person was deficient in, the more severe their stage of frailty.

Muscle weakness is the hallmark symptom of frailty, but if recognized in its early stages, frailty can be reversed, according to researcher Rose-Anne Kenny. However, the longer frailty is present, the more difficult it is to recover, and the associated weakness and fatigue become progressively worse.

“Our data suggest that low micronutrient status may act as an easily modified marker and intervention target for frailty among adults aged 50 years and over,” said researcher, Aisling O'Halloran, in a statement. A healthy diet can provide the nutrients tracked in this research, though the study's findings suggest that dietary supplementation may be needed to overcome deficiencies.

Here are some good ways to get the micronutrients you need to protect against frailty:

  • Folate can be found in eggs, legumes, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and citrus fruits. Many grain products are also fortified with folate.
  • Vitamin B12 is found in fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, milk products and fortified breakfast cereals.
  • Vitamin D is found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, and in fortified milk. Other foods such as yogurt, fruit juice and breakfast cereals may also have added vitamin D.
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin are found together in many foods. Dark green leafy vegetables are the best source, but other fruits and vegetables like broccoli, oranges, peppers, corn, green peas and tangerines are also good sources.
  • The study was published in the Journal of American Medical Directors Association.