How to Nourish an Aging Body
The importance of nutrition in healthy aging is well established. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that poor diet and inactivity (something we discussed in this blog post) causes 310,000 to 580,000 deaths per year and are major contributors to numerous diseases and conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and stroke, among others.
So what should you be eating in order to age well? Here’s what the research tells us.
The Mediterranean diet may be one of the most-studied diets in the world. The diet emphasizes eating fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, and fish while eating less red meat and dairy. A new study from the IRCCS Neuromed Mediterranean Neurological Institute in Italy adds more evidence that Mediterranean-style diets help prolong life and improve overall health. Researchers analyzed the relationship between the traditional Mediterranean diet and mortality in a sample of more than 5,000 people over 65 years of age and followed up for eight years.
“The novelty of our research is to have focused our attention on a population over 65 years old,” said Marialaura Bonaccio, epidemiologist and first author of the study. “We already knew that the Mediterranean diet is able to reduce the risk of mortality in the general population, but we did not know whether it would be the same specifically for elderly people. Now data clearly shows that a traditional Mediterranean-like diet is associated with 25% reduction of all-cause mortality.”
Nutrition’s effect on the brain
In addition to increasing overall health and longevity, diet plays an important role in maintaining a healthy mind. The MIND diet, which is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, has been shown to lower a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s, perhaps by as much as 53 percent, according to researchers at Rush University. A later study by Rush researchers showed that older adults who followed the MIND diet more rigorously showed an equivalent of being 7.5 years younger cognitively than those who followed the diet least. The MIND diet, while similar to the Mediterranean diet, puts a greater emphasis on eating leafy green vegetables, berries, beans and poultry.
What about specific nutrients? Are there things that seniors need more than younger adults? Possibly. Here are some specific nutrients that people may need as they age.
Calcium and Vitamin D
As we age, our bones lose density. This can be particularly true for women. To help combat this, seniors may need to supplement their diets with calcium and vitamin D, which work together to strengthen bones. While many turn to dairy products to accomplish this goal, there are other foods that are high in calcium and have the added benefit of having no cholesterol. These include dark leafy greens, broccoli, almonds, and white beans. Sardines are also high in calcium. Additionally, greens have Vitamin K, another nutrient necessary for bone health. Foods high in vitamin D include fatty fish such as salmon, beef liver, egg yolks, and foods fortified with vitamin D.
Seniors are at a higher risk for vitamin B12 deficiency, which may lead to tingling in the extremities of the body, fatigue, and even memory loss. A study conducted by researchers at Rush University Medical Center found that seniors with low levels of B12 had a greater risk of brain shrinkage and a decline of cognitive skills. Food rich in vitamin B12 include meat, fish and eggs.
Your cells need magnesium to maintain proper muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels, blood pressure as well as making protein and DNA. Magnesium is particularly important to maintain heart health. Heart disease disproportionately affects older adults and magnesium has been shown to improve heart health. Too little magnesium in your diet can also render vitamin D ineffective. Magnesium can be found in fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans and seeds.
This article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Speak to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian if you have questions about your nutritional needs.