The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging was a landmark study which demonstrated that lifestyle choices play a greater role in the aging process than genetics – lifestyle choices are responsible for about 70% of physical changes and more than 50% of cognitive changes experienced during the aging process. One of the most important lifestyle choices is nutrition. Good nutrition bolsters the immune system, reduces the risk of chronic disease, elevates mood, and improves brain health.
Older adults are at higher risk for malnutrition because of physical changes caused by aging. Metabolism decreases with age, leading to lower caloric requirements. The ability to absorb vitamin B-12 can also decrease, and there is a progressive loss of taste buds and receptors that causes a gradual loss of taste, particularly the sweet and salty sensations.
These physical changes can cause nutritional deficiencies and other adverse health effects. Older adults who do not reduce caloric intake are at risk of becoming overweight. Conversely, those that do reduce caloric intake may also reduce their intake of key nutrients – many older adults suffer from deficiencies in calcium, protein, potassium, fiber, and vitamins D, E, and K. Additionally, many people compensate for diminished sensations of sweet and salty by over-salting foods and craving sweets, which can contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes, and other health issues. The loss of receptors also lessens the ability to detect thirst, which causes many older adults to not drink enough fluids.
Fortunately, there are many things older adults can do to prevent malnutrition. For instance, they can compensate for reduced caloric intake with nutrient-dense foods and ensure that they drink adequate fluids (but not sugary drinks). They can also season food with herbs, spices, and citrus such as lemon juice, and consult the USDA guidance regarding nutrition for older adults.
Good nutrition is also linked to brain health. Many older adults suffer from a vitamin B-12 deficiency, which is associated with dementia and low cognitive function. They can increase Vitamin B-12 intake with foods fortified with vitamin B-12, such as fortified cereals. Older adults can also improve cognitive function with brain-healthy foods, including:
- dark-skinned fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, red grapes, spinach, broccoli, and beets;
- cold-water fish such as halibut, salmon, and tuna;
- certain nuts, such as almonds, pecans, and walnuts.
For additional information regarding nutrition and aging, consult these sources:
Successful aging can begin at any time—small changes can prevent or minimize problems and improve health, even at advanced ages.
Consult your doctor before making dietary changes.
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