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15.4: Older Adulthood - The Golden Years

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    • Learn about the nutrition requirements for the Golden years

    The senior years are the period from age fifty-one until the end of life. A number of physiological and emotional changes take place during this life stage. For example, many older adults face serious health challenges, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or dementia. Both men and women experience a loss of hormone production, muscle mass, and strength and undergo changes in body composition. Fat deposits build up in the abdominal area, which increases the risk for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The skin becomes thinner and may take longer to heal after an injury. Around age seventy, men begin to experience bone loss when estrogen and testosterone levels begin to decline.[1] Also in the later years, the heart has to work harder because each pump is not as efficient as it used to be. Kidneys are not as effective in excreting metabolic products such as sodium, acid, and potassium, which can alter water balance and increase the risk for over- or underhydration. In addition, immune function decreases and there is lower efficiency in the absorption of vitamins and minerals.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Golden Years. Image by Alex Blajan on unsplash.com / CC0.

    In addition, disorders of the nervous system can have profound effects. Dementia is the umbrella term for changes in the normal activity of the brain. Elderly adults who suffer from dementia may experience memory loss, agitation, and delusions. One in eight people over age sixty-four and almost half of all people over eighty-five suffer from the brain disorder Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia.[2] Neurological disorder and psychological conditions, such as depression, can influence attitudes toward food, along with the ability to prepare or ingest food. They might lead some adults to overindulge to compensate for stress or emotions that are difficult to handle. Other adults might eat less or pay less attention to their diet and nutritional needs. Older adults may also need guidance from dietitians and health-care professionals to make the best dietary choices for this stage of life.

    Beginning at age fifty-one, requirements change once again and relate to the nutritional issues and health challenges that older people face. After age sixty, blood pressure rises and the immune system may have more difficulty battling invaders and infections. The skin becomes more wrinkled and hair has turned gray or white or fallen out, resulting in hair thinning. Older adults may gradually lose an inch or two in height. Also, short-term memory might not be as keen as it once was.[3]

    Being either underweight or overweight is also a major concern for the elderly. However, many older adults remain in relatively good health and continue to be active into their golden years. Good nutrition is often the key to maintaining health later in life. In addition, the fitness and nutritional choices made earlier in life set the stage for continued health and happiness.  Older adults should continue to consume nutrient-dense foods and remain physically active. However, deficiencies are more common after age sixty, primarily due to reduced intake or malabsorption. The loss of mobility among frail, homebound elderly adults also impacts their access to healthy, diverse foods.

    Energy and Macronutrients

    Due to reductions in lean body mass and metabolic rate, older adults require less energy than younger adults. The energy requirements for people ages fifty-one and over are 1,600 to 2,200 calories for women and 2,000 to 2,800 calories for men, depending on activity level. The decrease in physical activity that is typical of older adults also influences nutritional requirements. The AMDRs for carbohydrates, protein, and fat remain the same from middle age into old age. Older adults should substitute more unrefined carbohydrates for refined ones, such as whole grains and brown rice. Fiber is especially important in preventing constipation and diverticulitis, and may also reduce the risk of colon cancer. Protein should be lean, and healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, are part of any good diet.

    Micronutrients

    An increase in certain micronutrients can help maintain health during this life stage. The recommendations for calcium increase to 1,200 milligrams per day for both men and women to slow bone loss. Also to help protect bones, vitamin D recommendations increase to 10–15 micrograms per day for men and women. Vitamin B6 recommendations rise to 1.7 milligrams per day for older men and 1.5 milligrams per day for older women to help lower levels of homocysteine and protect against cardiovascular disease. As adults age, the production of stomach acid can decrease and lead to an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. This can affect the absorption of vitamin B12 and cause a deficiency. As a result, older adults need more B12 than younger adults, and require an intake of 2.4 micrograms per day, which helps promote healthy brain functioning. For elderly women, higher iron levels are no longer needed postmenopause and recommendations decrease to 8 milligrams per day. People over age fifty should eat foods rich with all of these micronutrients.

    Nutritional Concerns for Older Adults

    Dietary choices can help improve health during this life stage and address some of the nutritional concerns that many older adults face. In addition, there are specific concerns related to nutrition that affect adults in their later years. They include medical problems, such as disability and disease, which can impact diet and activity level. For example, dental problems can lead to difficulties with chewing and swallowing, which in turn can make it hard to maintain a healthy diet. The use of dentures or the preparation of pureed or chopped foods can help solve this problem. There also is a decreased thirst response in the elderly, and the kidneys have a decreased ability to concentrate urine, both of which can lead to dehydration.

    Sensory Issues

    At about age sixty, taste buds begin to decrease in size and number. As a result, the taste threshold is higher in older adults, meaning that more of the same flavor must be present to detect the taste. Many elderly people lose the ability to distinguish between salty, sour, sweet, and bitter flavors. This can make food seem less appealing and decrease the appetite. An intake of foods high in sugar and sodium can increase due to an inability to discern those tastes. The sense of smell also decreases, which impacts attitudes toward food. Sensory issues may also affect the digestion because the taste and smell of food stimulates the secretion of digestive enzymes in the mouth, stomach, and pancreas.

    Dysphagia

    Some older adults have difficulty getting adequate nutrition because of the disorder dysphagia, which impairs the ability to swallow. Any damage to the parts of the brain that control swallowing can result in dysphagia, therefore stroke is a common cause. Dysphagia is also associated with advanced dementia because of overall brain function impairment. To assist older adults suffering from dysphagia, it can be helpful to alter food consistency. For example, solid foods can be pureed, ground, or chopped to allow more successful and safe swallow. This decreases the risk of aspiration, which occurs when food flows into the respiratory tract and can result in pneumonia. Typically, speech therapists, physicians, and dietitians work together to determine the appropriate diet for dysphagia patients.

    Obesity in Old Age

    Similar to other life stages, obesity is a concern for the elderly. Adults over age sixty are more likely to be obese than young or middle-aged adults. As explained throughout this chapter, excess body weight has severe consequences. Being overweight or obese increases the risk for potentially fatal conditions that can afflict the elderly. They include cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States, and Type 2 diabetes, which causes about seventy thousand deaths in the United States annually.[4] Obesity is also a contributing factor for a number of other conditions, including arthritis.

    For older adults who are overweight or obese, dietary changes to promote weight loss should be combined with an exercise program to protect muscle mass. This is because dieting reduces muscle as well as fat, which can exacerbate the loss of muscle mass due to aging. Although weight loss among the elderly can be beneficial, it is best to be cautious and consult with a healthcare professional before beginning a weight-loss program.

    The Anorexia of Aging

    In addition to concerns about obesity among senior citizens, being underweight can be a major problem. A condition known as the anorexia of aging is characterized by poor food intake, which results in dangerous weight loss. This major health problem among the elderly leads to a higher risk for immune deficiency, frequent falls, muscle loss, and cognitive deficits. Reduced muscle mass and physical activity mean that older adults need fewer calories per day to maintain a normal weight. It is important for health care providers to examine the causes for anorexia of aging among their patients, which can vary from one individual to another. Understanding why some elderly people eat less as they age can help healthcare professionals assess the risk factors associated with this condition. Decreased intake may be due to disability or the lack of a motivation to eat. Also, many older adults skip at least one meal each day. As a result, some elderly people are unable to meet even reduced energy needs.

    Nutritional interventions should focus primarily on a healthy diet. Remedies can include increasing the frequency of meals and adding healthy, high-calorie foods (such as nuts, potatoes, whole-grain pasta, and avocados) to the diet. Liquid supplements between meals may help to improve caloric intake.[5] Health care professionals should consider a patient’s habits and preferences when developing a nutritional treatment plan. After a plan is in place, patients should be weighed on a weekly basis until they show improvement.

    Vision Problems

    Many older people suffer from vision problems and a loss of vision. Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in Americans over age sixty.[6] This disorder can make food planning and preparation extremely difficult and people who suffer from it often must depend on caregivers for their meals. Self-feeding also may be difficult if an elderly person cannot see his or her food clearly. Friends and family members can help older adults with shopping and cooking. Food-assistance programs for older adults (such as Meals on Wheels) can also be helpful.

    Diet may help to prevent macular degeneration. Consuming colorful fruits and vegetables increases the intake of lutein and zeaxanthin. Several studies have shown that these antioxidants provide protection for the eyes. Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collard greens, and also corn, peaches, squash, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, orange juice, and honeydew melon.[7]

    Longevity and Nutrition

    The foods you consume in your younger years influence your health as you age. Good nutrition and regular physical activity can help you live longer and healthier. Conversely, poor nutrition and a lack of exercise can shorten your life and lead to medical problems. The right foods provide numerous benefits at every stage of life. They help an infant grow, an adolescent develop mentally and physically, a young adult achieve his or her physical peak, and an older adult cope with aging. Nutritious foods form the foundation of a healthy life at every age.

    Developing Habits

    Eating habits develop early in life. They are typically formed within the first few years and it is believed that they persist for years, if not for life. So it is important for parents and other caregivers to help children establish healthy habits and avoid problematic ones. Children begin expressing their preferences at an early age. Parents must find a balance between providing a child with an opportunity for self-expression, helping a child develop healthy habits, and making sure that a child meets all of their nutritional needs.

    Bad habits and poor nutrition have an accrual effect. The foods you consume in your younger years will impact your health as you age, from childhood into the later stages of life. As a result, good nutrition today means optimal health tomorrow. Therefore, it is best to start making healthy choices from a young age and maintain them as you mature. However, a recent report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that adopting good nutritional choices later in life, during the forties, fifties, and even the sixties, may still help to reduce the risk of chronic disease as you grow older.[8]

    Even if past nutritional and lifestyle choices were not aligned with dietary guidelines, older adults can still do a great deal to reduce their risk of disability and chronic disease. As we age, we tend to lose lean body mass. This loss of muscle and bone can have critical health implications. For example, a decrease in body strength can result in an increased risk for fractures because older adults with weakened muscles are more likely to fall, and to sustain serious injuries when they do. However, improving your diet while increasing physical activity helps to control weight, reduce fat mass, and maintain muscle and bone mass.

    There are a number of changes middle-aged adults can implement, even after years of unhealthy choices. Choices include eating more dark, green, leafy vegetables, substituting high-fat proteins with lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, and nuts, and engaging in moderate physical activity for thirty minutes per day, several days per week. The resulting improvements in body composition will go a long way toward providing greater protection against falls and fractures, and helping to ward off cardiovascular disease and hypertension, among other chronic conditions.[9]

    Footnotes 

    1. American Medical Association. Complete Guide to Prevention and Wellness. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2008, 512. 
    2. American Medical Association. Complete Guide to Prevention and Wellness. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2008, 421. 
    3. Beverly McMillan, Illustrated Atlas of the Human Body (Sydney, Australia: Weldon Owen, 2008), 260. 
    4. Deaths and Mortality. Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm. Updated May 3, 2017. Accessed December 9, 2017. 
    5. Morley, JE. Anorexia of Aging: Physiologic and Pathologic. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997; 66, 760–73. http://www.ajcn.org/content/66/4/760.full.pdf. Accessed November 12, 2017.
    6. American Medical Association. Complete Guide to Prevention and Wellness. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2008, 413. 
    7. American Medical Association. Complete Guide to Prevention and Wellness. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2008, 415. 
    8. Rivlin, RS. Keeping the Young-Elderly Healthy: Is It Too Late to Improve Our Health through Nutrition?. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007; 86, 1572S–6S. 
    9. Rivlin, RS. Keeping the Young-Elderly Healthy: Is It Too Late to Improve Our Health through Nutrition?. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007; 86, 1572S–6S. 

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