Nutrition has an enormous impact on the physical health and well-being of older adults.
Almost everyone knows that a person’s dietary needs vary according to their age. In fact, a baby will not eat the same thing as an adult. And yet, from a certain age, this specificity of dietary needs becomes an abstract concept for many people. Many people are unaware that, like babies, the nutritional needs of older people are very different from those of young adults.
Unfortunately, senior nutrition is not receiving the attention it deserves. Not only does a healthy diet for seniors contribute to physical health, but it also has a huge impact on memory and mental function.
In the rest of this article, we will discuss why nutrition for the elderly is so important and we will also present some tips and tricks to improve the nutrition of the elderly.
Healthy eating for seniors
Believe it or not, the elderly are extremely vulnerable to malnutrition. Just because a plate is full doesn’t mean it is properly filled. The risk of malnutrition in the elderly increases because of the following:
- Metabolism and appetite declining with age
- However, based on a normal diet, reducing caloric intake also reduces the amount of nutrients available at each meal.
- To make matters worse, the body loses some of its effectiveness in absorbing nutrients (especially certain important specific nutrients) with age.
But apart from all this, we generally see a decline in seniors’ ability to memorize information, or to remember things. In the most extreme cases, Alzheimer’s disease accentuates the deficit even more.
How can food help (or on the contrary damage) your memory?
Numerous research and scientific studies suggest that our food affects our ability to remember and our likelihood of developing dementia with age.
Take for example the steak which is a very popular dish under many skies. It is loaded with saturated fats, which are known to raise blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or bad cholesterol for the uninitiated. Other types of fats, such as trans fats – found mainly in industrial food products – do the same thing with LDL.
The accumulation of this LDL cholesterol in the body damages the arteries and, among other things, is the cause of many cardiovascular diseases. According to Dr. Francine Grodstein, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Associate Epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, this cholesterol is also bad for the brain.
Diets high in cholesterol and fats may accelerate the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. These are a type of sticky protein responsible for most of the damage that occurs in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
However, be careful to distinguish between the types of fat. While eating foods high in bad fats is bad for the memory, eating good fats, such as omega-3s, is beneficial.
Recent studies even indicate that a Keto (i.e. very high-fat) diet may even help fight Alzheimer’s disease thanks to the neuroprotective effect of ketones – produced by the liver when the body is in a state of ketosis – on aging brain cells. However, there are not enough scientific studies and the diet is particularly restrictive, so the opinion of one’s doctor is essential before considering such a diet.
Special nutritional needs for the elderly
Elderly nutrition is important to support cellular function throughout the body, strengthen the immune system and prevent physical and mental illness.
This is an important aspect of senior nutrition that has many benefits. Consuming fiber would reduce inflammation of microglial cells and thus delay age-related brain aging. Fibre is also essential for maintaining good digestive health and avoiding constipation. In addition, many fibre-rich foods such as whole grains are essential to support heart health.
The brain and neurons are essentially made up of fat, but they communicate with each other through the proteins we consume. Consuming enough (but not too much) protein therefore promotes the health of neurotransmitters and the brain. You can find some of the most protein-rich foods here.
Young adults need protein to stay in shape and avoid high cholesterol. The nutritional needs of older adults are similar in this regard, but they also need protein to maintain muscle strength. Muscle mass decreases with age, so protein is vital. Atrophied muscles can lead to falls and loss of mobility. Seniors therefore need as much (if not more) protein as younger adults.
Vitamin B12 deficiency affects up to 15% of adults over 60 years of age. Why is this? The digestive system’s ability to absorb protein-bound vitamin B12 decreases with age. Lack of this vital nutrient has a huge impact on the blood and central nervous system.
Although this can also occur in younger people, the effects are even more pronounced in older people. This can include anemia, tingling or numbness in the extremities, fatigue, poor balance and memory loss.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Most people already know that omega-3 fatty acids are important for maintaining good heart health. But few people also know that these fatty acids are crucial to support brain health.
Low levels of omega 3 can lead to memory loss, decreased immune function and even mental health problems such as depression. Omega 3s are particularly important in the diet of elderly people with dementia.
How to ensure adequate nutrition for the elderly
It’s not always easy to eat healthy. This is especially true for the elderly. Every bite of their meals should contain as many nutrients as possible.
Here are some of the best foods to include as well as some tips for meeting the nutritional needs of older adults.
- Add flavor with spices and herbs. Avoid foods high in cholesterol and sodium such as butter and bacon.
- Choose brightly colored fruits and vegetables such as peppers and cranberries – these contain many antioxidants that preserve the memory of aging.
- Stick to fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables: canned products contain high levels of sodium and sugar. And eat them on a daily basis, so be sure to eat them regularly.
- Include dark leafy greens such as kale, spinach and kale leaves – these are loaded with vitamins and minerals.
- Encourage several small meals instead of three large ones.
- Include lean protein at every meal such as chicken, ground beef. These foods are rich in acetyl-L carnitine, which helps reduce oxidative stress and prevent cell death and, conversely, even promotes cell growth.
- Avoid refined sugars and simple carbohydrates such as baked goods, white bread and white rice – these blood sugar levels increase and have little nutritional value.
- Instead, eat complex carbohydrates such as oats, brown rice and whole grain pasta or bread.
- Be sure to add multivitamins and supplements for well-balanced senior nutrition.
- Don’t forget about hydration; water is still the best drink.