Senior Nutrition: The Importance of Healthy Meals for the Elderly

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No matter your age, there are plenty of things you can do to improve your health and keep your body well. Unsurprisingly, nutrition and exercise are at the top of that list.

Have you heard of Ginette Bedard? At age 68, she began running as her new hobby. By age 86, she has now run hundreds of races, including nearly 20 marathons.

Or how about 82-year-old Ernestine Shepherd, the world’s oldest competitive female bodybuilder, who didn’t start working out until she was 56? Both of these women are redefining what can be expected in senior health, and their nutrition and exercise routines are critical pieces of how they do it.

Here’s a look at the kinds of foods seniors should consider, as well as a few to avoid. Read on for research insights and health tips, and find out more about senior communities that can help support health and well-being.

Why Nutrition is Especially Important for Seniors and Longevity

Even the healthiest among us often deal with arthritis, hearing loss, cataracts, loss of muscle, memory loss, back pain, and changing hormone levels. As the prevalence of disease increases; many older adults must manage health problems arising from heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, or the onset of brain-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Nutrition for seniors is vital to help keep the bodies health at its best.

Common nutrition issues for elders

Whatever your age, remember that your organs, your teeth, your skin, your bones, your nervous system, and your brain are the same age. Sure, new cells regenerate constantly, but it’s a fact that there are more challenges for 70-year-old bones or a 70-year-old heart than for their younger counterparts. This is a big reason why seniors need to fight nutritional deficiencies and eat with health in mind. Some specific nutritional issues that older adults must face include:

  • Atrophic gastritis: The most significant change in how an estimated 20% of the elderly population uses nutrients is atrophic gastritis, which causes you to malabsorp such things as folic acid, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, iron, and calcium. Even more people (up to 50%) have chronic gastritis, which can lead to atrophic gastritis.
  • Excess calories: As we age, our metabolic rate generally becomes slower, resulting in a need for fewer calories overall.  If we consume too many calories without burning them off with exercise, we accumulate fat. In older people, this fat tends to accumulate in the abdominal area, which can interfere with proper liver function and can cause issues with glucose (sugar) and lipids (fatty acids). Some of these issues can be minimized with proper nutrition and exercise.
  • Hormone changes: In women, hormonal changes brought on by menopause (which typically occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, though it can go later) are associated with increased total body fat and abdominal fat. This extra weight raises the risk of cardiovascular disease and affects sexual function and quality of life.
  • Muscle loss: It’s common to lose muscle and strength as you age (called sarcopenia), unless you regularly exercise and use weight-bearing routines to help counteract the tendency. Without this deliberate strength-building, bones become weaker which leads to an increase of falls and fractures. Approximately 20% of those younger than 70 but 50% of those over 80 are affected by sarcopenia.
  • Constipation: Constipation is a common problem as people age, especially those over 65, and more often in women. The reasons? Less exercise, and more medications that list it as a possible side effect. A diet rich in fiber not only helps relieve constipation, it can also help prevent diverticular disease, which can develop into diverticulitis and may present a need for surgery.
  • Dehydration: As we age, we are more prone to dehydration; it is the most common fluid and electrolyte problem found in the elderly. Dehydration “affects large numbers, contributes to or exacerbates other severe medical conditions, may cause acute confusion and disorientation, and severely impairs the elderly individual’s quality of life,” according to the journal Clinical Nutrition Espen. We may also lose our regular feelings of hunger or appetite, due to lower levels of hunger hormones, higher levels of fullness hormones, and changes in taste and smell.

Learn more about nutrition habits in other parts of the world and the healthiest foods for seniors.