"The diet of older people changes quickly when they move from community to long-term care (in a couple of weeks), but the microbiota changes more slowly -- up to a year for full change from community type to long-term residential type," O'Toole explained. "One would not expect that the rate of heath decline in this time could be responsible for the change in microbiota composition. It's more plausible to be driven by diet."
A September 2011 study in the journal Science found that people who ate a diet high in fats and animal proteins had a different assortment of bacteria in their digestive tracts than people who ate a diet with more plant-based foods and higher carbohydrates.
Identifying exactly what lives in our guts could point to dietary interventions that might lead to longer and healthier lives, authors of the new study stated.
"To combat frailty, it makes sense if our microbiota is helping our bodies to be as effective and efficient as possible," said O'Toole, a senior lecturer in genetics at University College Cork, in Ireland.
Gut microbiota synthesizes vitamins, helps metabolism and appears also to profoundly affect how our immune systems work.
"[Some studies] have shown that gut bacteria can 'talk' to the brain by synthesizing compounds that affect the brain-gut axis," O'Toole said. "An exciting theory is that altered gut bacteria in older subjects could impact on cognitive function or mood."
Gastroenterologist Dr. Ilseung Cho commented on the findings. "This is one of the first studies that correlates differences in the gut microbiome to disease in the elderly. It remains to be seen whether the observed differences are a result or cause of infirmity in this particular population," said Cho, an assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City. "Regardless, these findings add to the growing body of evidence that shows that the gut microbiome can affect hu
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