After youve reached a certain age, does eating right really matter? As a reader of this newsletter, you might take it for granted that the answer is, Yes, of course!-after all, you subscribe to a publication whose tagline is Living healthier longer. But exactly how does nutrition affect the health of older individuals?
For answers, we turned to Helen M. Rasmussen, PhD, RD, an instructor at Tufts Friedman School and senior research dietitian at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. Rasmussen is the co-creator of MyPlate for Older Adults (see the February 2012 newsletter), which adapts the latest nutritional science to the special needs of older individuals.
We started with a question from a reader who chairs a resident nutrition committee for a continuing care retirement community: Many of our residents have the notion that eating healthy food in their later years contributes little of consequence to their future quality or length of life: Ive lived this long without eating healthy-why start now? Is there evidence that eating in accordance with principle of currently established nutrition science will yield something of value to the health of seniors?
Rasmussen replies: My colleagues who have worked in continuing care retirement communities recognize the why start now-Im on overtime! mantra from residents who are more comfortable eating what they like, healthy foods be damned. It is an attitude that may feel justified, earned and well-deserved: If they have eaten a lifes worth of what would be defined as unhealthy food and have made it into the upper end of the age survival graph intact, who are we to force broccoli on them as dining fare?
Of course, its true that older people do have special nutritional and health needs, due to changes in their processing and absorption of nutrients. These include changes in calorie expenditure, vitamin D synthesis in the skin, and vitamin B12 absorption from food.
So, Rasmussen goes on, You might want to consider that your quality of life may improve if your dietary habits get a makeover. In the construction of the My Plate for Older Adults icon (see image above), we considered specific RDA requirements as well as 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggestions and incorporated these into nutritional needs for men and women 51 years and older based on nutrition studies and chronic disease evidence. Considering what we know about the importance of good nutrition and aging, there are points to consider when someone is dining on fast food meals, donuts, carbonated soda, snack chips and dip or whatever is your favorite guilty-pleasure food.
In 2009, Rasmussen points out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published the 10 leading life-threatening illnesses/conditions for different age groups. Five of those for individuals over age 60 are conditions that benefit from diet and nutrition intervention: cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, cancer and kidney disease.
Lets look at each and how healthy eating can reduce your risks:
1. Cardiovascular disease, a condition that affects the heart and blood vessels, is the leading cause of death in the United States and around the world. Three risk factors for cardiovascular disease that are amenable to diet, Rasmussen notes, are unhealthy blood lipid levels (including high LDL cholesterol and triglycerides), high blood pressure (hypertension) and of course obesity.
Weight reduction and subsequent maintenance of normal weight for those who are overweight or obese can increase ones enjoyment of everyday activities, Rasmussen adds. Imagine carrying around a 20-pound sack of flour with you wherever you go. Once you have eliminated this baggage and more by reducing your calorie intake, you may feel lighter, breathe easier, and be able to get around more comfortably with less joint pain. It may even encourage you to increase your activity routine, hence improving your mobility and revving up your metabolism.
As a bonus, she says, there is a high incidence of sleep apnea associated with weight gain. So weight reduction can also help you get a good nights rest.
2. Cerebrovascular diseases are conditions that develop as a result of problems with the blood vessels that supply the brain. The most common types of cerebrovascular diseases are the different kinds of stroke, along with vascular dementia.
The most important risk factor in cerebrovascular diseases is hypertension, or high blood pressure. This is one condition that can be controlled by medication, a healthy diet, not smoking, and being physically active, says Rasmussen. Lowering dietary sodium levels has been shown to decrease blood pressure. People over the age of 50 should try to keep their sodium intake at 1,500 milligrams per day-a level that is currently in debate, but nonetheless is a proxy marker for setting sodium intake goals lower. (See our November Special Report.)
The effort of dodging this ubiquitous mineral is both challenging and discouraging, Rasmussen adds. According to the CDC, more than 40% of our sodium intake comes from the following 10 types of foods: cheese, cold cuts, pizza, breads and rolls, fresh and processed chicken, pasta dishes, soups, snack foods, sandwiches and mixed-meat dishes with tomato sauces. So, eliminating salt from your palate is an adjustment. Actually finding foods at the grocery store that are low in sodium is hard, and if you make your own low-sodium meals, substituting herbs and spices is a whole new experience.
However, once weaned from a very high salt diet, the more subtle flavors of foods as well as experimenting with various herb and spice sensations are well worth the change, and your blood pressure will benefit.
In a 2001 study, for example, the low-sodium DASH dietary plan reduced blood pressure by an average 12/6 mm Hg (systolic/diastolic) in participants with hypertension. To read more about DASH, see <www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/dash>.
3. Diabetes is associated with a two to four times higher risk of death from heart disease or stroke. Other complications from diabetes include vision loss, kidney disease and limb amputations.
Focusing on regular physical activity, maintaining a normal weight and choosing foods that are low on the glycemic index scale will help maintain normal glucose (blood sugar) control, says Rasmussen. Eating less fat, including fatty meats, avoiding high-sugar food items and eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains is recommended. These efforts can help control the complications of diabetes, or may prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes.
4. Cancer, or neoplasms, are diseases where abnormal cells divide and are able to invade other tissues. Practicing healthy lifestyle habits can reduce the risk of developing cancer, says Rasmussen. This includes maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet, along with drinking alcohol only in moderation (two servings/day for men and one for women), being physically active, getting recommended screening tests and not smoking. Although this sounds like a broken record, a healthy diet would include eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains and limiting fatty foods. (See our September Special Supplement for a review of the latest evidence on specific foods that may help protect against cancer.)
5. Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a condition where your kidneys cannot filter waste from your blood; these waste products remain in the body and can cause additional health problems. The chances of developing CKD increase with age; it most commonly affects individuals age 70 and over. Men have a 50% greater chance of getting CKD than women. Those who have diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and are obese are at risk for CKD.
Says Rasmussen, Preventive measures taken to avoid CKD should come as no surprise to the reader: regular physical activity, a healthy diet that includes keeping yourself well-hydrated, and maintaining a healthy body weight.
So does a healthy lifestyle matter, even when youre old enough to retire? Says Rasmussen, Our retirement community resident should consider the real value of planning for a long, healthy future, and attend to the warning often attributed to Satchel Paige: ‘If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.'”