- Nutrient needs for older adults
- How aging impacts your body
- Special nutrient concerns in older adults
The foods you consume in your younger years influence your health as you age. Good nutrition and regular physical activity can help you live longer and healthier. Conversely, poor nutrition and a lack of exercise can shorten your life and lead to medical problems. The right foods provide numerous benefits at every stage of life.
Energy and Macronutrients
Due to reductions in lean body mass and metabolic rate, older adults require less energy than younger adults. The energy requirements for people ages fifty-one and over are 1,600 to 2,200 calories for women and 2,000 to 2,800 calories for men, depending on activity level. The decrease in physical activity that is typical of older adults also influences nutritional requirements. The AMDRs for carbohydrates, protein, and fat remain the same from middle age into old age. Older adults should substitute more unrefined carbohydrates for refined ones, such as whole grains and brown rice. Fiber is essential in preventing constipation and diverticulitis and may also reduce the risk of colon cancer. Protein should be lean, and healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, are part of any good diet.
An increase in certain micronutrients can help maintain health during this life stage. The recommendations for calcium increase to 1,200 milligrams per day for both men and women to slow bone loss. Also, to help protect bones, vitamin D recommendations increase to 10–15 micrograms per day for men and women. Vitamin B6 recommendations rise to 1.7 milligrams per day for older men and 1.5 milligrams per day for older women to help lower homocysteine levels and protect against cardiovascular disease. As adults age, stomach acid production can decrease and lead to an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. This can affect the absorption of vitamin B12 and cause a deficiency. As a result, older adults need more B12 than younger adults and require an intake of 2.4 micrograms per day, promoting healthy brain functioning. For older women, higher iron levels are no longer needed postmenopause, and recommendations decrease to 8 milligrams per day. People over age fifty should eat foods rich in all of these micronutrients.
Nutritional Concerns for Older Adults
At about age sixty, taste buds begin to decrease in size and number. As a result, the taste threshold is higher in older adults, meaning that more of the same flavor must detect the taste. Many older adults lose the ability to distinguish between salty, sour, sweet, and bitter flavors. This can make food seem less appealing and decrease appetite. An intake of foods high in sugar and sodium can increase due to an inability to discern those tastes. The sense of smell also decreases, which impacts attitudes toward food. Sensory issues may also affect digestion because the taste and smell of food stimulate digestive enzymes’ secretion in the mouth, stomach, and pancreas.
Loss of Teeth
Dental problems can lead to chewing and swallowing difficulties, making it hard to maintain a healthy diet. The use of dentures or the preparation of pureed or chopped foods can help solve this problem.
Difficulty Swallowing Foods
Some older adults have difficulty getting adequate nutrition because of the disorder dysphagia, which impairs swallowing. Any damage to the brain’s parts that control swallowing can result in dysphagia; therefore, stroke is a common cause. Dysphagia is also associated with advanced dementia because of overall brain function impairment. To assist older adults suffering from dysphagia, it can be helpful to alter food consistency. For example, solid foods can be pureed, ground, or chopped to allow a more successful and safe swallow. This decreases the risk of aspiration, which occurs when food flows into the respiratory tract and can result in pneumonia. Typically, speech therapists, physicians, and dietitians work together to determine the appropriate diet for dysphagia patients.
Many older people suffer from vision problems and a loss of vision. Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in Americans over age sixty. This disorder can make food planning and preparation extremely difficult, and people who suffer from it often must depend on caregivers for their meals. Self-feeding also may be difficult if an older adult cannot see his or her food clearly. Friends and family members can help older adults with shopping and cooking. Food-assistance programs for older adults (such as Meals on Wheels) can also be helpful.
Diet may help to prevent macular degeneration. Consuming colorful fruits and vegetables increases the intake of lutein and zeaxanthin. Several studies have shown that these antioxidants protect the eyes. Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collard greens, corn, peaches, squash, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, orange juice, and honeydew melon.
Iron poor diets and chronic disease can lead to anemia in older adults. Other health issues like ulcers, decreased stomach acid, or intrinsic factors to properly absorb vitamin B12 can also contribute.
Signs and Symptoms of Anemia
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling cold
- Dizziness or weakness
- Brittle or spoon-shaped nails
- Experience a change in how foods taste
- Sore tongue
- Pale colored skin
- Dry and easily bruised skin
- Restless legs syndrome
- Fast heartbeat
Eating iron-rich foods like red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, beans, dark leafy green vegetables can help maintain iron stores in the body.
According to the National Institute of Health, in people aged 65, about 26% of women and 16% of men suffer from constipation. The rate continues to increase as we age. For 84 years and older, rates rise to 34% for women and 26% for men. Constipation can be a side effect of medication, low fluid intake, low activity, or a low fiber diet, and many times it is a mix of some or all of these issues. If not properly addressed, these issues can lead to an intestinal blockage.
The importance of having adequate calcium stores early in life impacts our risk of fractures later in our elderly years. Many elderly with osteoporosis who fall and break a hip never recover fully. Approximately 15% die within one year due to complications as their health further declines due to the injury. The elderly need to continue to participate in strength bearing exercises and get adequate amounts of Vitamin D and calcium to help support bone health.
The use of five or more prescription drugs per day is referred to as polypharmacy. Most older adults average 2-9 medications per day. With each medication comes side effects such as decreased appetite, dizziness, fatigue, taste alterations, excretion of certain vitamins and minerals. Additionally, the elderly are at a higher risk for drug interactions due to their body’s ability to metabolize and clear the drugs from their body.
Obesity is a concern for the elderly. Adults over age sixty are more likely to be obese than young or middle-aged adults. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Type 2 diabetes causes about seventy thousand deaths in the United States annually. Obesity is also a contributing factor for many other conditions, including arthritis.
For older adults who are overweight or obese, dietary changes to promote weight loss should be combined with an exercise program to protect muscle mass. This is because dieting reduces muscle and fat, which can exacerbate muscle mass loss due to aging. Although weight loss among the elderly can be beneficial, it is best to be cautious and consult with a healthcare professional before beginning a weight-loss program.
- Identify key nutrients for older adults. (MCCCD Competency 4)
- Explain age-related changes within the body that could negatively impact health. (MCCCD Competency 4)
- Discuss special nutritional concerns associated with older adults. (MCCCD Competency 3)