Nutrition is of paramount importance throughout the lifespan, including during old age. Malnutrition is a common problem amongst people over seventy, which can result in premature death. Shatenstein (2002) identifies nursing homes as environments where the elderly are the most at risk of being undernourished. A nourishing and balanced diet designed specifically for the needs of the elderly can enhance and prolong the lifespan.
One of the biggest nutritional problems that the elderly face is a loss of bone density. This can lead to bone fractures and breaks, which poses a more serious problem for the elderly because healing takes longer, and thus reduces mobility. In order to protect bone density, a diet rich in calcium will help prevent bone degeneration and osteoporosis. Dairy products such as milk and cheese are food sources rich in calcium.
Another effect of aging is loss of muscle mass, which leads to overall weakness. In order to maintain muscle mass in the later years, a diet rich in protein is essential. In fact, the elderly need more protein in their diets per kilo of body weight than a young adult. Animal products such as lean meat and eggs are good sources of protein. It has been found that Vitamin D can have a positive impact on muscle (Shatenstein, 2002.) Protein in the diet helps to build muscle.
Shatenstein (2002) also identifies micronutrients as being imperative to healthy old age. Vitamins and minerals ensure that cell regeneration and overall health are enhanced, and can be found in everyday foods. Foods rich in anti-oxidants have been shown to be important in protecting the elderly from memory loss. Healing and immunity are improved with the addition of vitamin A, vitamin C, and also zinc.
Complex carbohydrates are an important source of nutrition in the elderly, as they provide sustained energy.
Fluid intake is also very important; proper fluid intake ensures the prevention of constipation and also helps with cognition and function.
Three different diets for the elderly are as follows: 1) a low sodium, which is good for elderly patients who have high blood pressure; 2) a diet high in healthy fats and low in saturated and trans fats, which is used to protect against heart disease; and 3) the anti-inflammatory diet, which is used for elderly patients with conditions such as arthritis.
A low sodium diet is one in which salt is eliminated from the diet as much as possible. Although sodium has health benefits from the iodine it contains, which helps with thyroid regulation, excess salt is undesirable in the diet. Salt is also added to many processed foods, such as breads and even cereals. Therefore, in order to reduce the overall consumption of sodium in one’s diet, processed foods should be avoided by elderly patients on this type of diet. This diet assists in reducing fluid in the arteries, therefore the heart does not have to work as hard to pump blood around the body.
A diet which is low in trans and saturated fats, and high in healthy fats, is one in which processed foods such as cookies, and fast foods such as French fries, are avoided. Healthy fats include avocado, nuts and extra virgin olive oil. Good fats bring down cholesterol levels, and lowers one’s risk of developing heart disease.
The anti-inflammatory diet aims to prevent or treat inflammation, which occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to an irritation or injury (Porter et al, 2013.) There are two types of inflammation that affect the elderly – chronic inflammation, such as arthritis, and acute, an example of which is an elderly having a fall and subsequently breaking a bone. Foods to include are fruits and vegetables, oily fish, lean poultry, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and wholegrains. Conversely, foods to avoid are dairy products, foods high in fat, processed meats, sugars, and red meat. The way that this diet works to reduce inflammation is by using “these fats to manufacture prostaglandins, chemicals that play an important role in reducing inflammation and promoting a healthy immune response” (Porter et al, 2013, p. 56.)
Diet takes on an even greater importance in the elderly when there are significant health issues present, including but limited to wounds, bowel health, and diabetes. Using diabetes as an example, diet for an elderly patient suffering from this would need to eat a diet aimed at keeping obesity at bay. The diet for a person with diabetes needs to minimise starchy carbohydrates, for it is these foods that make blood sugar levels go up quickly. Foods to be avoided include white bread, pasta, and crackers. Any carbohydrates consumed by an elderly diabetic should be complex carbohydrates, which release energy into the bloodstream at a much slower and steadier rate, thus avoiding the rapid increase of sugar in the blood. Good food choices for elderly diabetics include wholegrains such as quinoa, barley and oatmeal. Starchy vegetables should be kept to a minimum, such as potato, and non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli and leafy greens should be encouraged. If the patient cannot eat these foods in their raw form, then a pureed diet should be offered. One diet that has been proven to be particularly efficacious for diabetics is the Mediterranean Diet (M.D.), which focuses on olive oil, fish, legumes, vegetables, cereals, nuts and legumes (Bonaccio et al, 2016, p. 400-401.)
Adequate nutrition and management of diet in accordance to the health requirements of the elderly patient play a crucial role in longevity and overall quality of life in the senior years. Common health problems associated with old age are a loss of bone density and muscle mass, both of which can be managed with a diet rich in calcium and protein. There are several types of diet that can be suggested by health care professionals which are tailored to the patient’s needs. For example, common illnesses in the elderly, such as diabetes, can be managed with an appropriate diet which limits starchy carbohydrates and instead encourages the consumption of complex carbohydrates; the Mediterranean Diet has also been used to good effect in controlling diabetes in elderly patients.
- Bonaccio, M., Castelnuovo, A., Costanzo, S., Persichillo, M., De Curtis, A., Donati, M., Gaetano, G. and Iacoviello, L. (2016). “Adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet and mortality in subjects with diabetes. Prospective results from the MOLI-SANI study”. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 23 (4), pp. 400-407.
- Porter, M. C., Newton, D. and Swain, L. (2013). The Gale Encyclopedia of Diets: A Guide to Health and Nutrition. Detroit: Gale.
- Shatenstein, B. (2002). “Malnutrition”. Encyclopedia of Aging. New York: Macmillan Reference.