People may be living longer, but quality of life tends to wane with aging. The burden of disease increases significantly after age 65. As a result, older adults commonly take multiple medications, further exacerbating their risk of frailty and premature death.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Chronic diseases have solid foundations in lifestyle behaviours, including diet. Addressing some common myths around diet and nutrition in older adults can shine some light on healthy aging.
People lose muscle mass with aging, resulting in lower energy needs. But it’s important to stay active and maintain strong muscles, which also support good bone density. Even if slower metabolism reduces calorie requirements, more than ever, older adults need a full range of nutrients and fibre from a variety of whole foods to maintain good health.
Taste and smell can decline with age, impacting appetite. But skipping meals can cause a downward spiral. It can lower blood glucose levels and increase risk of malnutrition. If appetite is low, eat sweet fruit, add salt and herbs to meals for flavour, and have small portions and regular snacks with high nutrition density – ensuring protein needs are met.
Nutritional supplements can never replace the full range of vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats, polyphenols and fibre provided by a whole food diet. Sometimes they are necessary to supplement a healthy diet though. Vitamins most at risk in aging are B12 and Vitamin D. Protein shakes can provide a concentrated protein source if appetite is low.
Although a little extra padding is okay in older years, overweight and obesity increase risk of chronic disease at any age. It is recommended that older people who are overweight shed 5-10% of their body weight over 6 months for improved health. The best approach is to eat whole foods and avoid highly processed foods with refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats.
While overweight and underweight bring a host of health problems, poor health can still afflict people in the normal weight range. An unhealthy diet can cause chronic inflammation – associated with a range of physical and mental health problems. A whole food diet low in processed foods is important at any age or weight.
Thirst is not generally a reliable indicator of fluid needs, particularly in older years when thirst sensation declines. For this and several other reasons, dehydration is an oft-overlooked problem in older adults. It can lead to poor health, hospitalisation and death. Even mild dehydration can cause weakness, dizziness, low blood pressure and increased falls risk. Ensure plenty of fluids are freely available, particularly water and herbal tea.
Although body parts endure gradual wear and tear with age, being sick is not normal. Good health can be maintained with good nutrition, regular hydration, healthy weight, physical activity, mental stimulation, social engagement and careful monitoring of any unnecessary medications.
Dementia risk is associated with several lifestyle factors including low physical activity and poor diet. Research suggests a Mediterranean-style diet – high in plant foods and healthy fats with moderate amounts of fish and dairy and low intakes of red meat and processed food – is protective. B vitamins, antioxidants (abundant in plant foods) and omega-3s may also reduce dementia risk.