Nutrition for life longevity: Factors to consider for healthy ageing

hands-compassion

I love working with ‘The Oldies’! I’ve had years of experience working purely with older adults. I could have adopted many of my clients as grandparents! Not that I needed anymore as I am very lucky to have 5!! I loved hearing their life stories and secrets to good health and longevity. I find it particularly amusing when clients older than 85 years old say things like “I don’t like to go to bingo as there are too many old people there” and “When I get old….”. It just shows age is really just a number and you are as old as you feel. They really do put a smile on my face!

I’m going to bring up some important issues to consider as we get older. Positive nutrition and lifestyle habits become habit once started in early childhood. When the habit is formed, a healthy eating and lifestyle will naturally follow us into older age. This will help to keep us healthier for longer and therefore improve our chances of enjoying a good quality of life. What’s the point of living until you are 100 if you have a long list of chronic disease and you ‘rattle’ when you walk from all the medications you take? Isn’t this motivation enough to look after yourself now?

The risk of malnutrition increases

I often hear from clients – “I don’t need as much food as I age”. There is some truth in this. As we age our muscle mass naturally declines, as does our requirement for energy, but some nutrients actually increase. For example, protein, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, calcium and vitamin D (Nutrient Reference Values, 2006). The problem I saw over and over is that these client’s were hardly eating enough food to sustain a small child. They weren’t often meeting the minimum requirements to cover simple biological functions like breathing, blood circulation, body temperature control and sleeping. In these cases I observed unintentional weight loss as a sign of malnutrition. If these clients did not improve their nutrition and meet their minimum daily requirements, then their risk of malnutrition increased or deteriorated. Next week, I will talk about malnutrition in more detail. The following points are also risk factors for malnutrition.

The risk of falls increases

I mentioned above that our muscle mass naturally declines as we age. Our muscle mass is linked to our nutrition and exercise. If we don’t eat adequately, our muscle mass declines as our body breaks down our muscle in the first instance to ensure the rest of the body has enough energy to function and therefore meet our basic biological functions. Exercise in the older population is a great way to slow down the natural reduction of muscle mass.

If you don’t look after your muscles by feeding and moving them adequately, you lose them. There is truth in the saying “You don’t use it, you lose it”. The problem with diminishing muscle mass is that it affects our mobility. No surprises there. You need muscles to move. This puts you at risk of falling and injuring yourself. Hip breakages are a common outcome to falling in the older adult population. Breaking a hip increases your likelihood of morbidity and mortality.

Disordered eating

The older population are unfortunately not immune from disordered eating. I have seen many examples of disordered eating. I saw clients at risk of malnutrition or had malnutrition that resisted treatment for malnutrition due to the ‘dieting mentality’. Sadly, many people would rather die from malnutrition that becoming ‘fat’.

The risk of loneliness increases

Loneliness is a contributor to poor nutrition. Often food is the first thing that suffers when people are lonely. I can only image how these clients must feel day in and day out preparing meals purely for themselves. They often said “food becomes a chore”. These older individuals may be lonely because of being widowed, having no family or even having family who are too busy to visit or living too far away/interstate. Services like Meals on Wheels is a great for these people, however, it is very common for them to consume the one meal throughout the whole day. Finances and poor appetite are usually driving forces. And again, the risk of malnutrition further increases.

The priorities of ageing well with good nutrition is to maintain a social network with friends and family, eat a balanced diet from the ‘what‘ and ‘how‘ of nutrition, without disordered eating. When these eating and lifestyle behaviours are in place, your muscle mass will be adequately fueled therefore reducing your risk of falling and developing malnutrition.

***

I’ve learnt so much in my work with older adults. Generally speaking, Google may be the first line of call for many questions we may have but I think it’s respectful/honourable that we still seek the opinions of the older adult population. They have had a wealth of experience over their life time. For sure things change very fast in today’s society and we are often too busy to scratch ourselves, let alone make a phone call to our grandparents, but there are some things that just don’t change. For example, cooking, general healthy eating concepts and I’m sure there are many more areas you could tell me about.

Keep the delectable in dietetics by giving your grandparent(s) a big hug or phone call!

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