Why Seniors Have Different Nutritional Needs

Image Nutrition for Seniors

By: Dr. Lindsay Jones-Born

Eating well is important at any age, but even more necessary for seniors because nutritional needs change as we age.  Adequate nutrition is necessary for health, vitality and quality of life.  Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons many seniors are not eating as well as they should, which can lead to poor nutrition or malnutrition, easily being mistaken as a disease or illness.

How Do Our Bodies Change As We Age?

There are many reasons our bodies change as we get older, including physiological, perceptual and general age related conditions – such as gastrointestinal or dental conditions.  These changes all influence the performance of our body as a whole, which in turn, influences our eating, nutritional intake and overall health.

Physiological Changes –

One reason nutritional needs change is due to physiological changes that occur later in life.  Energy expenditure general decreases with advancing age because of a decrease I basal metabolic rate and physical activity, thus decreasing our caloric needs.  Our bodies also begin to experience a decrease in kidney function, re-distribution of composition and changes in our nervous system.

Perceptual Changes –

Perceptual changes later in life can also influence our nutrition, such as changes in hearing, taste, smell and vision.  One of the most common complaints is in regards to the diminished taste in food.  As taste buds decrease, so does our taste for salty and sweet – often times making food taste more bitter or sour.  Diminished or loss of hearing also affects our nutrition and food experience.  The difficulty and frustration from the inability to hold a conversation with our eating partner out at a restaurant or at a social function can limit one’s food experience.  And the loss of smell can also have a huge impact on the types of food one chooses to eat as there is a loss of satisfaction that can lead to poor food choices.

Other Aging-Related Changes –

Other changes in body function may impact nutritional intake, such as dentition, or the makeup of a set of teeth (including how many, their arrangement and their condition).  The loss of teeth and/or ill-fitting dentures can lead to avoidance of hard and sticky foods.  Gastrointestinal changes such as chronic gastritis, delayed stomach emptying, constipation and gas may lead to avoiding healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables – the food categories that should be more emphasized rather than eliminated.  These factors alone my contribute to why 3.7 million seniors are malnourished and shed light o the importance of educating caregivers and aging seniors as to specific dietary need options, as well as, catered senior diets and nutritional needs.

Senior Citizens, Malnutrition and Vitamin Deficiencies

Malnutrition is seen in varying degrees in the elderly, along with varying vitamin deficiencies.  Malnutrition is due to under nutrition, nutrient deficiencies or imbalances.  Most physicians do not see frank malnutrition anymore, such as scurvy: but more milder malnutrition symptoms such as loss of appetite, weight loss/gain, general malaise or lack of overall interest and wellness.  Common nutrient deficiencies of dietary origin include inadequate intake of vitamin A, B, C, D, E, folic acid and niacin.  Malnutrition may also be the result of some socioeconomic risk factors such as the following:

Loss of a spouse or family member

Lack of interest in cooking or eating alone

Fear of personal safety (which affects their ability to go grocery shopping)

Financial concerns

Institutionalization or hospitalizations (that do not ensure adequate nutrition)

Clearly nutrition plays a vital role in the quality of life in older persons.  This is why preventative medicine and focusing on good eating habits is crucial.  It is recommended to follow a preventative health maintenance nutritional program, such as the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”, 2010 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which describes two eating plans.

The USDA food patterns

The DASH Eating Plan

The USDA food patters suggests that people 50 and older choose healthy foods every day from the following:

Fruits – 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 cups

Vegetables – 2 to 3 ½ cups

Grains – 5 to 10 ounces

Protein foods – 5 to 7 ounces

Dairy foods – 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk

Oils – 5 to 8 teaspoons

Solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS) – keep the amount of SoFAS small

The Importance of Preventative Health

Ensuring adequate nutrition and proper intake of vitamins and minerals will help keep our aging population feeling more vital and ultimately more healthy, thus using prevention rather than intervention.

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