As we grow older, our nutritional needs change. Over time, our bodies send us signals that we need to pick up and act on.
Ignoring them may increase our risk of nutritional deficiencies which in turn affects our physical, mental and social health.
Here are some key nutrients for older adults and tips on what we can do to age healthily. As we age:
1. Our bodies are less able to absorb vitamins and minerals
- As we get older, our digestive system slows down. As a result, we make less saliva and stomach acids. This in turn makes it more difficult for our body to absorb key vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin B12, B6, D Folic acid. These are important for maintaining a healthy metabolism, circulation, immune system, bone health and keeping us alert.
- Physical changes that occur with ageing such as forgetfulness can lead to us to adopt a repetitive diet with a lack of variety. This can also lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
- On average, more than 50% of the elderly in developed countries have multiple chronic conditions. People with conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart and renal disease often need to take more prescription medications. In countries like Singapore where we have a significant ageing population, it’s common for the elderly to take many medicines daily. Some of these medications can decrease the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
2. We move about less, reducing our need for calories
- Our calorie needs depend on our height, weight, how much we move around and how much muscle we carry among other factors. However, an older person will not move around or exercise as much as they did when they were younger. They therefore require less calories and tend to have less muscle on their bodies. If an elderly person continues to eat as they used to when they were younger, they may end up overweight.
3. We lose muscle and strength
- Did you know that after the age of 30, we start losing 5% of our muscle mass with each passing decade? Most men may lose up to 30% of their muscle mass when they reach their seventies.
- This age-related muscle loss and function is called Sarcopenia and can cause frailty and fractures in the elderly.
- It is important to discuss bone health among the elderly. Over the last 30 years in Singapore, cases of hip fractures have increased five times in women aged 50 and above, and almost double in men that age.
- We build our bone mass and strength in our younger years and it is inevitable that we start losing it as we grow older. However, hormonal changes, a low calcium intake, being homebound (with less sun exposure for Vitamin D) and kidney problems can all contribute to calcium deficiency in old age.
4. We are less able to recognise important senses like hunger and thirst.
- Water is essential to health but is often overlooked. We know that as we age, we start to feel less thirsty - why our body goes through this change is less well understood. Studies have shown that for seniors, their thirst sensors get less sensitive, making them less likely to drink despite their bodies needing fluids, which can lead to dehydration.
- Even mild dehydration can affect mental performance and increase feelings of tiredness. Memory, attention, concentration and reaction time can also suffer. These complications can lead to low blood pressure, weakness, dizziness and increased risk of falls. 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 fall once a year and in Singapore, falls are a leading cause of injury among older adults.
- People with Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may have reduced appetite or are unable to recognise hunger cues. Other effects the elderly can suffer from are swallowing problems, reduced taste and smell and dental issues which interfere with the desire to eat.
5. We lose weight and are more likely to suffer from constipation
- The changes in an ageing body from certain conditions such as Parkinson’s, stroke and cancer and the lack of hunger described above may lead to weight loss and frailty. Unintentional weight loss causes malnutrition and can further lead the person and their loved ones spiralling down into physical and emotional distress.
- Mention the word constipation to anyone caring for an elderly person and they’ll describe a whole host of problems it causes in their lives. Although constipation tends to be a very common problem among all age groups, the elderly folk tend to suffer from it most. In general, people do not eat enough fibre and get enough regular exercise, which we know are important in proper bowel functioning, however, for someone older, there are additional factors which make it difficult for them to have normal bowel function.
- Issues such as loss of teeth make it difficult to eat regular textured meals, so an elderly person may choose softer, more processed foods which can be low in fibre. Lack of fluids, the use of certain medication and hormonal changes especially in ageing women can all contribute to constipation.
6. We tend to increase our fat and salt intake
- As we age our taste buds find it harder to pick up subtle flavours in food and as a result, we may end up having salty foods more often than necessary, A high salt diet can lead to hypertension. They call hypertension the silent killer because usually there are no symptoms felt until it is too late. This condition is so common among those 60-69 age range that it affects 1 in 2 people of that age group in Singapore.
So, what can an elderly person do to adapt to their changing nutritional needs and age well? Let’s explore some handy tips below.
Healthy ageing tips
- Try having smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day rather than the traditional 3 large meals.
- Add more fibre to the diet such as whole grain foods, vegetables, fruits, beans and lentils which will help prevent constipation. Dark green, leafy and brightly coloured vegetables are naturally low in fat, calories and full of vitamins and minerals.
- To help maintain muscle and energy, include foods rich in protein such as fish and skinless chicken, eggs, beans, lentils (dal), tofu, tempeh nuts and low-fat milk and cheese daily.
- Have whole grain foods which are great sources of fibre. Sources of whole grain foods are brown rice and noodles, multigrain bread, potatoes and whole wheat roti.
- Decrease salt in your diet. A lower fat and sodium intake (from salt), can help manage blood pressure and decrease the chances of heart disease, the two health conditions that most elderly people here face. Use more whole spices, lemon juice or natural seasonings such as shallots, onions, garlic and parsley to spice up the meals instead of adding table salt, and drink less gravy and soup when eating out.
- Decrease unhealthy fats in your diet. Replace saturated fat sources (such as butter, lard, ghee, coconut cream/milk) with unsaturated sources like nuts and seeds, olive, peanut and canola oils. Replace deep fried meat, oil/fat filled dishes and fatty meat with lean poultry, fish, tofu and beans.
- After consulting your Doctor, consider a multivitamin supplement to help with micronutrient deficiencies such as iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and D
- Get at least one serving of low-fat calcium rich foods in the day such as calcium-fortified soy milk, tofu, milk, cheese and yoghurt to help prevent Osteoporosis.
- Stay physically active. Start an exercise routine, something as simple as walking regularly, dance, climbing stairs, yoga, tai chi or swimming. Staying physically fit can reap benefits to the body in terms of balance, coordination, blood circulation, muscle and mental strength (staying sharp and focused). Resistance exercise (doing weights or using exercise bands) can also help seniors increase muscle strength and endurance and is a main form of treatment for Sarcopenia.
- Get hydrated. Drink small amounts of water more frequently throughout the day than a lot at one go. Remember that soups, milk, juices and fresh fruits and vegetables high in water content also count, so have these often (limit tea, coffee and colas as they can cause the body to lose more water). Seek help for incontinence or bladder infections to manage it properly so that you are less likely to avoid fluids. Consider hydrating jellies to help to replenish fluids and provide much needed electrolytes to the body.
- Overcome the barriers to eating well. Seek medical help to tackle problems such as pain, dental problems, the need for a texture modified diet. If you are caring for an ageing person, help them identify their immediate environment or social problems that prevent them from getting a nutritious diet. Acknowledging and managing these issues along with regular medical check-ups can help a senior lead a meaningful life well into their golden years.
Do you have a loved one who needs nutritious food that is easy to chew and palatable for their taste buds? Visit CaregiverAsia's E-store to view Health Food Matters' Delisoft Easy Meals that come in different textures and can be easily served by reheating in the microwave or steamer!