Life in the slower lane
You know you’re getting on in age when you begin to sleep less, wake up earlier in the morning, feel satiated with less food, and even get by just fine with fewer and lighter meals in a day. These are the physical changes that accompany your transition to old age, as you live life in the “slower lane”.
The biological explanation: sometime between the ages of 50 to 60, as the average person crosses the boundary between middle age and old age, his or her body clock begins to tick slower, causing the basal metabolic rate to slow down. In other words, the physical processes in your body, as well as its regulation of these processes, shifts to a lower gear.In practical terms, the body of an older person requires a lower energy level to keep their vital organs and nervous system running. These changes, coupled with the age-related decline in the sense of smell and taste (food just isn’t that appetising without them!), explain why old folks tend to eat sparingly.
Don’t throw the nutrients out with the calories
You’d think that eating less has to be a good thing – after years of fighting to control your diet in your middle age (when fat tends to accumulate on your middle), you might welcome a time when both willpower and body easily say no to an excessively rich diet. So what’s wrong with this picture?
According to the World Health Organisation, everything. While the body in old age requires less calories, its nutritional needs do not diminish. The lighter meals that seniors tend to consume are sufficient in calories but leave them short-changed in nutrients. On top of that, the ageing body absorbs nutrients and minerals much slower and less efficiently. In other words, as you age, you get less nutrients from what you’re eating, and you’re already eating less.
By heeding signals from their body clock to eat and drink less, seniors around the world are in danger of becoming undernourished – and dehydrated too. A healthy older adult may feel less thirsty, but this is all in the mind: seniors are at risk of dehydration due to reduced fluid intake and increased fluid loss, and their bodies do not send out the appropriate warning signals to get them to eat or drink more .
In fact, studies have repeatedly shown that the diets of seniors have a shortfall of vitamins, essential minerals and nutrients – which contribute to the typical decline of physical health and mental acuity in old age.
Special needs, senior needs
Healthy eating doesn’t get easier as we age. In fact, seniors need more of certain nutrients to combat both the changes in the ageing body, as well as the ailments that rear their heads in old age.
Osteoporosis happens to be the number one chronic disease of the old age: in Singapore, its incidence is 8 times the rate of breast cancer cases. The body begins losing its calcium stores after the age of 30 but the steepest decline occurs around the transition to old age. The ageing process changes the body’s vitamin D metabolism, leading to a decrease in the body’s calcium absorption capacity. If that’s not bad enough, lactose intolerance often strikes the elderly, compounding the problem of inadequate calcium intake.
A good retirement diet should therefore have adequate vitamin D and a high calcium content for optimal bone health. The WHO suggests 800-1200 mg of calcium and 20 μg of vitamin D a day. Zinc too plays a role in bone density, as well as enhancing the body’s immune response.
Coronary heart disease and stroke are yet other familiar diseases affecting the elderly. Remember what we said earlier on about losing weight easily when you’re old? As part and parcel of a normal ageing process called “sarcopenia”, the elderly lose healthy lean mass and muscle; leaving behind a thinner body with a generous amount of fat.
A proper dietary plan for the elderly has a reduced intake of total and unsaturated fat, and increased intake of vegetables. In nutritional terms, the elderly need far more folate and vitamins B6 and B12 than they are taking. Fatty acids found in fish, as well as vitamins C and E also help insure against coronary and stroke risks.
With the ageing process increasing the body’s proportion of body fat, older persons are also at risk from type II diabetes. Generally speaking, their diets tend to fall somewhat short of the important trace element, magnesium, which plays a star role in the body’s regulation of insulin. An adequate intake of magnesium is estimated to be between 225 to 280 mg a day.
Cognitive decline in old age may not be purely inevitable or genetic, with recent studies showing a dietary link between folic acid, riboflavin, thiamine, vitamins B1 and B12 deficiencies with chronic degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer and Parkinson. Clinical trials also suggest high doses of vitamin E to the tune of 1800 IU a day may even delay the onset of full-blown Alzheimer disease5. And, peeking into the chemistry of the ageing brain, researchers have also shown a correlation of elderly depression to lowered intake of omega‑3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Eating right: a recipe for a healthy old age
At a glance, Table 1 shows the nutrients that older persons tend to lack in their daily diets, and the nutrientrich food sources you should consider adding to your diet.
It’s hardly surprising to find that the Mediterranean and Okinawa diets, which have produced populations with the longest life expectancies in the world, are lowcalorie, low-fat, high-nutrient diets with an emphasis on green vegetables, legumes, soy products, fish, and fresh fruit. Recent research has also suggested that these diets may also grant some protection against Alzheimer disease and other old age cognitive disorders.
In other words, any healthy diet for the elderly is all about quality over quantity. Your health and nutrition rely more on consuming the right food, rather than on less food. And if you eat right, you can enjoy a trifecta of long life, a healthy body, and a sound mind even in your advanced years!
Now that we’re clear on what to eat, here are some tips on how to eat:
A recent study (the 10,000 Step Study managed by DiabetesinControl.com and supported by a grant from Omron Healthcare) found that those who walked or exercised five times a week for 30 minutes over 3 months lost 5% to 7% of their body weight and reduced their risk of diabetes by 58%.
For those over the age of 60, the reduction in diabetes risk was 71%, better than any drug used in the study. The study also shows that people with diabetes who wear pedometers and have a daily goal become more active all day, and see improvements in fitness, blood glucose, A1c, total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, Triglycerides, Blood Pressure and Weight.Whatever your age is, getting your walks with a pedometer may be the easiest and most painless free way to get healthier in a flash. So by all means, go for long walks, but if you want to make sure that those steps count - count them.