News | Published November 9, 2012 | Written by Kristy Koelle, RD, LDN, CDE, CSG

Nutrition and the older adult

One in every eight people in America is an older adult, defined by the Older Americans Act as an individual who is aged 60 years and older. The number of older Americans is climbing at a dramatic rate and is expected to reach 72.1 million by 2030. The main goal for older adults in Healthy People 2020, a science-based set of national objectives for all Americans, is to "improve the health, function and quality of life." Preventing chronic diseases and reducing associated complications are key strategies for keeping older adults healthy and independent for as long as possible.

Nutrition is one of the major determinants of successful aging. A healthy diet that emphasizes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean meats such as poultry and fish has been linked to improved nutritional status, quality of life and longevity. A healthy diet can reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors that are prevalent in this population such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

Often, barriers to a healthy diet are present in older adults. These barriers may be due to low income, problems shopping for or preparing food, depression and cognitive impairment. Other changes that may occur associated with aging, disease or side effects of medications include loss of appetite, difficulty chewing or swallowing, sensory loss and changes in the GI tract. These factors can contribute to consumption of a poor-quality diet, inadequate energy and lack of essential nutrient intake, resulting in malnutrition, frailty and disability.

In the institutionalized setting, dietary restrictions can contribute to compromised nutritional status for the elderly. A restrictive diet can contribute to poor food or fluid intake - leading to weight loss, malnutrition, dehydration and poor quality of life. Individuals who are at risk for compromised nutritional status may benefit from less restrictive diets tailored to their specific needs. Dehydration is another major concern and can lead to constipation, fecal impaction, cognitive impairment, functional decline and even death. Adequate fluid intake is essential to health and well-being, especially for people aged 85 years or older.

Many older adults do not consume sufficient amounts of several nutrients in their diet. When diet is insufficient to meet micronutrient needs, a low-dose multivitamin and mineral supplement may be beneficial. Additionally, calcium and vitamin D are a specific concern to this age group. Adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D are encouraged to prevent or delay the progression of osteoporosis. Calcium rich foods include milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, broccoli, kale and calcium-fortified juices and cereals. Vitamin D is obtained mostly through fortified foods in the diet, such as milk and breakfast cereals, and from sun exposure.

Nutrition may play a role in the prevention of age-related macular degeneration, which is a common cause of visual impairment among the elderly. Adequate intake of antioxidants in carotenoids, especially lutein and zeaxanthin from fruits, vegetables or supplements may be beneficial in the prevention of age-related macular degeneration. It is always a good idea to discuss vitamins, minerals and dietary supplements with your doctor or dietitian first.

In addition to a healthy diet, exercise plays a pivotal role in ensuring successful aging. Older adults should regularly engage in various forms of physical activity to reduce functional decline associated with aging. It is recommended that older adults engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity most days of the week. It is also important to maintain a healthy body weight.

For information on the nutrition services for older adults provided by Mount Nittany Health, visit mountnittany.org and eatright.org.

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