There’s no question about it: Our bodies change as we age. In turn, seniors have very different nutritional needs than teenagers, children, and even middle-aged adults.
Age-related changes can affect how your body processes food, which influences your dietary needs and affects your appetite. These are some of the changes:
- Your metabolism slows down. This happens naturally, but it becomes more pronounced if you don’t get as much exercise as you should. When your metabolism slows, your body doesn’t burn as many calories, which means you need to eat less to stay at a healthy weight. As a result, the foods you eat should be as nutrient-rich as possible. Most women with average activity levels need about 1,800 calories per day. Men with an average activity level need about 2,300 calories each day. You’ll need fewer calories if you’re sedentary, more if you are very active.
- Your digestive system changes. Your body produces less of the fluids that it needs to process food in your digestive system when you get older. These changes can make it harder for your body to absorb important nutrients like folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12.
- Your appetite may change. Many seniors take one or more medications for health conditions; these can cause side effects such as a lack of appetite or stomach upset, which can lead to poor nutrition.
- Your emotional health may be affected. Seniors who feel depressed or lonely often lose interest in eating. On the other hand, emotional issues may cause some people to eat more and gain unwanted pounds.
Healthy Eating Plans for Seniors
A healthy diet packed with vital nutrients can help ward off potential health problems that are common in senior citizens, like constipation, heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Nutritious foods will also help you maintain a healthy weight and can work wonders for your energy level.
Even if you’ve never followed a nutrition-based diet before, healthy eating isn’t difficult. The National Institute on Aging suggests two options for seniors:
The USDA Food Guide MyPlate Plan. This plan offers tips for building a healthy, balanced diet, including:
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Make at least half your grains whole grains.
- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals — and choose the foods with lower numbers.
The DASH Diet. The DASH eating plan includes all the key food groups, but is designed to help reduce blood pressure and emphasizes foods that are heart healthy. These are recommended daily serving amounts:
- Grains: 7 to 8 ounces
- Meat and beans: 6 ounces or less of chicken, meat, and fish plus 4 to 5 servings of nuts, seeds, and/or dried beans per week
- Milk: 2 to 3 cups
- Vegetables: 2 to 2.5 cups
- Fruit: 2 to 2.5 cups
- Oils: 2 teaspoons
Tips to Boost Your Nutritional Health
As you make food choices to improve your nutrition, keep these tips in mind:
- Stick to healthy fats. Choose healthy fats found in seeds, nuts, avocados, fatty fish, and vegetable oils rather than saturated fats and trans fats.
- Drink up. Water, of course. To stay hydrated, drink a lot of water and non-caffeinated beverages and eat foods with high water content (like soups, cucumbers, grapes, and melons) unless instructed otherwise by your doctor.
- Opt for whole grains. These fiber- and nutrient-rich foods will help your digestion and protect your heart. Choose brown rice, whole grain cereals, and whole wheat bread instead of white bread and refined grains.
- “Rough up” your diet. Include a variety of high-fiber foods every day, such as raw fruits and vegetables and whole grains. These foods help cut down on constipation; provide the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and nutrients that you need for healthy aging; help maintain your weight; and reduce your risk of heart problems. If you’re not sure you’re getting enough fiber, talk to your doctor about supplements.
- Pack in protein. Power your body with lean proteins like beans, eggs, chicken and fish, lean meats, and nuts.
- Remember that calcium is critical. Everyone needs calcium to protect bone health, but seniors should really bone up on calcium-rich foods like low-fat dairy products. A calcium supplement, usually paired with vitamin D — its partner in bone building — can also help you get what you need.
- Shop for B12. As an older adult, you should also look for foods, like cereals, that are fortified with vitamin B12. Because of the body’s decreased ability to absorb B12, getting more through diet and supplements will ensure that you meet your requirements.
Now that you know what to do, you can make the necessary changes to your diet and a real commitment to your senior health. It’s fine to start gradually: Exchanging junk foods for healthier options is a good first step. But try to make changes every day that will bring you closer to your goal of a healthy diet and a healthy life.
People who live long are much more likely to be disabled and require caregiving during their last months of life, two new studies found.
A national study of more than 8,200 older Americans revealed that more than one of every three seniors can expect to experience disability within their last year of life that will affect their ability to handle daily activities such as dressing, bathing, eating, getting in or out of bed, walking across the room or using the toilet.
And a smaller survey of 491 seniors in New Haven, Conn., found that disability ramps up quickly in the last few months of life. Five months before death, about 27 percent of the seniors surveyed needed help due to disability; that number increased rapidly to 57 percent in the month prior to death.
“We found that about half of patients in that year preceding death had serious symptoms that forced them to either stay in bed or cut down on their normal everyday activities,” said Dr. Sarwat Chaudhry, lead author of the New Haven study and an associate professor at Yale University School of Medicine’s Section of General Internal Medicine.
People commonly think that if they are disabled at the end of their life, it will come as the result of a fatal disease like cancer, Chaudhry noted. Her study revealed that is not necessarily the case.
Chaudhry said. “Patients who died of dementia, frailty, organ failure — all had a very similar burden of symptoms, with rates increasing five months prior to death.”
The number of seniors in the United States older than 85 is expected to triple over the next four decades, growing from 5.4 million in 2008 to 19 million in 2050.
This pair of studies, published online July 8 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, serves as a wake-up call for a society that will face a huge number of people who will need help during their final months of life, said Dr. Nancy Keating, associate professor of medicine and health care policy at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, both in Boston. Keating was not involved with the research.
“We need to be prepared for what the burden is on our society and on family caregivers and other caregivers who take care of these people,” Keating said. “It’s a huge problem. Americans are aging, they’re living longer, and with the aging population we’re going to have an extraordinary number of people who are going to need help.”
In the national survey, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), spoke to a representative sample of seniors, interviewing each person at least once during their last two years of life. The study ended up including more than 8,200 people with an average age at death of 79.
The survey found that disability increased from 28 percent two years before death to 56 percent in the last month of life. People who died at the oldest ages were more likely to have suffered a disability late in life — 21 percent for those 70 to 79 years old, 32 percent for those 80 to 89, and 50 percent for those 90 or older.
“Our data do raise the question of whether it makes sense to sell the public a view of aging that purports that it is reasonable to expect to both live a long life and remain free of disability throughout life,” Dr. Alexander Smith, of UCSF, and colleagues concluded. “Our findings add to the evidence that those who live to advanced ages will spend greater periods of time in states of disability than those who die at younger ages.”
The survey in New Haven involved monthly interviews of 754 seniors, 491 of whom died during the course of the study. “This allowed us a unique look at what was [happening] over the last few months and the last years of life,” Chaudhry said.
The Yale researchers discovered that disabling symptoms increased dramatically during the final five months of life, with nearly two of every three seniors experiencing disability in their last month.
“Our study is kind of calling to attention that disabling symptoms are common at the end of life,” Chaudhry said. “They are affecting patients’ independence and quality of life.”
Chaudhry believes that an improved system of palliative care holds the answer to helping people nearing the end of their lives.
“Right now, relatively few of our patients are referred to hospice at the end of life,” she said. “There’s a need for better palliative care throughout a patient’s life rather than in the last months. That kind of care can be very important in improving the quality of life, maintaining independence, and reducing caregiver burden.”
Keating said both studies call for a national reassessment of the availability of long-term care for seniors. Currently, most older Americans receive care from family members, she said, but as the elderly population grows there may not be enough caregivers to go around.
“More than 60 percent of women who live into their 90s are going to have disability,” Keating said, citing the UCSF study. “These are widowers who are not going to have their husbands to help take care of them. Even though some people are starting to think about their goals for the very end of their life, many people have no concept for what they would do if they can no longer live independently. We need to figure out the best way to help these people remain as independent as possible, but recognize that 40 to 60 percent of the people living into their 80s and 90s are going to need help due to disability.”
New Haven, Sarwat Chaudhry, UCSF, United States