Article: Healthy Lifestyles for Older Adults

September 29th, 2012 | by Pam Stuppy
Published in: Articles

Printed in Seacoast Online

Numerous factors determine the length and quality of our lives. A healthy lifestyle, early detection and prevention of disease, proper immunizations, and injury prevention are examples of contributors to more positive health outcomes.

Taking good care of ourselves throughout the adult years is important and can positively affect our health over the years ahead. Action steps such a consuming a nutrient-rich diet, maintaining a healthy body weight, and staying physically active are important precursors to maintaining physical and mental health. Continuing to work toward these goals is equally important as we move into the category of “older adult.” The Older Americans Act defined an “older adult” as someone 60 years and older.

Since 1900, the percentage of adults over 65 has more than tripled. Interestingly, of the most common causes of death of adults 65 and older, five out of eight are influenced by nutrition. This supports prioritizing the nutritional quality of a person’s food intake for short- and long-term health and for better physical and mental functioning.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (previously called The American Dietetic Association) recently updated its position statement about food and nutrition for older adults. In the report, it cites research suggesting that higher intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish, and low-fat dairy products are associated with “superior nutritional status, quality of life, and survival.”

Because of the diversity within the older adult category, nutrient and calorie needs vary. For most older adults, calorie needs are lower than when they were younger. Nutrient needs, however, are generally higher. For this reason, older adults should focus on nutrient-rich foods while limiting calories from less nutritious foods.

Older adults should give special attention to intake of fiber (at least 25gm/day), fluid (> 64 ounces/day), protein (needs are actually higher than for most younger adults to prevent muscle and bone loss), calcium (1200-1500mg preferably from dietary sources — like four servings of a low-fat dairy product daily), vitamin D (> 800 IU/day), vitamin B12 (2.4 ug/day from a supplement), folic acid (400 ug/day), and food sources of antioxidants. Note that high supplemental doses of B12, folic acid, calcium, and antioxidants are not recommended.

Antioxidants available from a wide range of plant-based foods can help reduce the effects of the aging process. They are especially important for eye, bone, immune system, brain, and cardiovascular health. Besides bone health, calcium and vitamin D are also being studied for their possible connection to reduced risk of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and the immune system. Having a blood test done periodically to assess vitamin D status is helpful in determining actual vitamin D needs. Many older adults are vitamin D deficient.

The Tufts’ “My Plate for Older Adults” contains a number of guidelines. It encourages making at least half of lunch and dinner plates brightly colored vegetables and deeply colored fruit. It also suggests whole, enriched, or fortified cereals and grains (for nutrients and fiber). For protein, calcium, and other nutrients, it recommends low- and non-fat dairy products. Additional protein sources include dried beans, nuts, poultry, fish, lean meat, tofu and eggs.

The Tufts plan also encourages liquid vegetable oils instead of trans and saturated fat sources. Spices and other seasonings are recommended instead of added salt. The total sodium intake for the day should stay below 1500 mg. Purchasing lower sodium products can be helpful in achieving this goal.

Adequate fluid intake is also crucial. Many older adults experience a decline in the thirst mechanism, so are more prone to dehydration. Milk, tea, coffee, low-sodium soups and water are good choices. Older adults should talk to their health-care provider if they are limiting fluids because of urinary incontinence, as there are ways to address this issue.

Two major health issues in older adults are sarcopenia and obesity. Sarcopenia is a loss of muscle because of the aging process, reduced physical activity and poor dietary intake. This means a greater risk of falling, a lower metabolism, which means a lower rate of calorie burning, and an increased risk of elevated blood pressure, blood sugar and high blood cholesterol/triglycerides.

Many nutrients are involved in building and maintaining muscle. Adequate protein intake is especially important. Some experts recommend 25-30 gm of high quality protein at each meal. Research suggests that spreading protein intake more evenly throughout the day supports muscle in older adults better than having most of the protein at one meal. Also note that adequate calories are required to spare dietary protein for muscle building. Otherwise, some of it is burned for energy needs.

How many grams of protein are in some common foods? An ounce of meat/poultry/fish/cheese or an egg contain 7 gm, 8 ounces of milk has 8 gm, 8 ounces of yogurt can provide 10-16 gm, ½ cup beans/¼ cup nuts or seeds/2 tablespoon peanut butter each provide 6 gm.

Older adults can have both sarcopenia and obesity, which greatly increases the risk of medical issues. Obesity also puts undue pressure on joints, while sarcopenia lowers the support to the joints otherwise provided by muscle tissue.

Moderating body weight through appropriate food intake and regular exercise is a good idea. Adequate intake of nutrients for building and maintaining muscle, as well as activities that frequently challenge the muscles to get stronger are important in countering sarcopenia. They also help to maintain bone density. In addition, daily physical activity helps reduce the risk of many medical problems and supports mental health.


One Response to “Article: Healthy Lifestyles for Older Adults”

  1. Elizabeth Nelson, MS, RD, CNSC on September 16th, 2013 5:35 pm

    I read through your web site and was impressed. You write in a very professional and yet easily understood manner. Your key talking points are excellent. Keep up the great work.
    From a fellow dietitian (whose approaching 30 years of experience),
    Elizabeth Nelson

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