Diet and the Aging Body

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One challenging part of aging is maintaining nutrition and overall health. Aging is linked to a variety of changes in the body, including muscle loss, thinner skin and changes in the gastrointestinal system. Some of these changes can make an older person prone to nutrient deficiencies, while others can affect their senses and quality of life.
A person’s daily caloric needs depend on their height, weight, muscle mass, activity level and several other factors. Typically, older adults need fewer calories to maintain their weight, since they tend to move and exercise less and carry less muscle. It’s common to lose muscle and strength as a person ages – in fact, the average adult loses 3-8% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30. This loss of muscle mass and strength is known as sarcopenia. It’s a major cause of weakness, fractures and poor health among the elderly.
Multiple studies in elderly people found that eating more protein or taking protein supplements may slow the rate of muscle loss, increase muscle mass and help build more muscle. Furthermore, combining a protein-rich diet with resistance exercise seems to be the most effective way to fight sarcopenia. Exercise is a vital part of muscle strength and can include activities such as long walks, bicycling, swimming or water activities. Using light weights or resistance bands can be very effective in promoting overall muscle health.
Despite the need for extra protein, the overall caloric requirement of older individuals is less. If they continue to eat the same number of calories per day as they did when they were younger, they could easily gain extra fat, especially around the belly area. This is especially true in postmenopausal women, as the decline in estrogen levels seen during this time may promote belly fat storage.
As one ages, nutrients that become especially important include protein, vitamin D, calcium and vitamin B12. Calcium and vitamin D are two of the most important nutrients for bone health. Calcium helps build and maintain healthy bones, while vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. Unfortunately, older adults tend to absorb less calcium from their diets as the gut ages.
The body can make vitamin D from the cholesterol in the skin when it is exposed to sunlight; however, aging can make the skin thinner, reducing its ability to make vitamin D. Together, these changes can reduce calcium and vitamin D levels, promoting bone loss and increasing risk of fractures. To counter aging’s effects on your vitamin D and calcium levels, it’s necessary to consume more calcium and vitamin D through foods and supplements. A variety of foods contain calcium, including dairy products and dark green, leafy vegetables.

Aging is linked to a variety of changes in the body, including muscle loss, thinner skin and changes in the gastrointestinal system.

Several other nutrients can be beneficial as a person grows older including:
  • Potassium: A higher potassium intake is associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure, kidney stones, osteoporosis and heart disease, all of which are more common among the elderly.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Heart disease is the leading cause of death among the elderly. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can lower heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure and triglycerides.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is an important mineral in the body. Unfortunately, elderly people are at risk of deficiency because of poor intake, medication use and age-related changes in gut function.
  • Iron: Deficiency is common in elderly people. This may cause anemia, a condition in which the blood does not supply enough oxygen to the body.
Most of these nutrients can be obtained from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats. However, people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet could benefit from taking an iron or omega-3 supplement as plant sources of iron are not absorbed as well as meat sources of iron. Omega-3 fats are mostly found in fish.
Hydration is an important health issue in older individuals. It is very important in preventing constipation, as well as taking care of the kidneys. As we age, the body’s thirst receptors in the brain become less sensitive, reducing the desire to drink water. Long-term dehydration can reduce the fluid in cells and reduce the ability to absorb medicine. This can worsen medical conditions and increase fatigue. That’s why it’s important to make a conscious effort to drink enough water daily. It is recommended to have one to two glasses of water with each meal or carry a water bottle throughout the day for a total consumption of about 64 oz/day.
For some older adults, excess caloric intake is not an issue. Rather, loss of appetite can significantly affect their health. Factors that could cause decreased appetite include changes in hormones, taste and smell, as well as changes in life circumstances. Elderly people have lower levels of ghrelin (hunger hormone) and higher levels of cholecystokinin and leptin (fullness hormone). This means that some elderly people can be hungry less often and feel fuller more quickly. If this issue isn’t addressed, it can lead to unintended weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. A loss of appetite is also linked to poor health and a higher risk of death.
Some recommendations for keeping a regular food intake schedule is to divide meals into smaller portions and have them every few hours while also incorporating healthy snacks in between meals such as almonds, yogurt and boiled eggs. Calorie supplements such as protein shakes can be an important part of getting enough calories, as well as additional vitamins.
Aging is linked to many changes that can result in deficient vitamin and protein intake. As one ages, changes in the body can result in unexpected weight gain or even loss. Maintaining a balanced nutritional intake with protein, vitamins and proper portion sizes in combination with regular exercise can help to maintain a healthy life into old age.
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