Friday, March 7, 2014

Nutritional Concerns As We Age

One of the top concerns for aging Americans is whether they are getting enough of the right nutrients, not just to maintain health, but in many cases, to mediate the effects of diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis.

As we get older, our metabolism slows down, meaning we don't need as many calories to fuel our daily activities, but that doesn't decrease our needs for nutrients. In fact, as we age, we may even need more nutrients in order to meet our bodies' demands. For instance, our ability to absorb Vitamin B--which our bodies use to help make red blood cells, increase our cognitive abilities, and to unlock the energy we take in as food--decreases drastically as we age, often meaning we need to eat more of it. (Ask your doctor and/or a registered dietitian before starting to use any supplements.) We also tend to lose our appetites as we age, and our "thirst cue" diminishes, both of which can leave us undernourished and dehydrated.

This so-called "anorexia of aging" can actually lead to greater risks of falls as well (because our bodies are not strong enough), cognitive decline (largely because of a decrease in B vitamins, both being ingested and absorbed), anemia, and immune deficiencies, because we are not getting enough of the nutrients we need. A lack of physical movement, too little fiber, and too little water intake can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort as well.

On the other end of the scale is weight gain as we age, a concern for those with osteoarthritis, as weight gain puts added stress on already inflamed joints. It's also a concern for folks with cardiovascular disease or metabolic diseases as it can increase risks of stroke, heart attack, and Type II Diabetes. Weight gain--as well as weight loss--can be seen as a psychological coping mechanism for depression or as a metabolic problem caused by inappropriate nutritional balance--both good reasons to go see a doctor.

Another major nutritional concern for us as we age is drug-nutrient and drug-drug interactions, which is a key reason to meet with a registered dietitian and your primary care physician. Drugs can interact with nutrients either diminishing the effectiveness of the drug or blocking the nutrients from being absorbed. 

So what are the best things for us to do?

Move! Physical exercise is key to moving nutrients through your body, keeping muscles and bones strong, and even keeping your mind sharp.

Stay hydrated. Even though we may not feel thirsty, our bodies still need to frequently be replenished with water. Of the six major nutrients, water is the most essential!  Our needs for water depend on our activity levels, the temperature outside, elevation (higher altitudes need more water), humidity, health, medications...a whole host of things. A safe bet is to drink a glass or two of water in the mornings and continue to "re-fill" throughout the day.

Eat more nutrient-dense foods. Think fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and good fats (unsaturated). Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals including cancer-fighting antioxidants, that our bodies need to stay healthy. Check out the ANDI index (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) to see what vegetables and fruits rank highest in nutrient density.

Think "Food First!" Our bodies use nutrients from food far better than they do nutrients from supplements. A healthy, balanced diet will often negate the need for supplements (vitamins, etc.), barring any health problems or nutrient deficiencies.

Talk to your doctor. Ask if there are any drug interactions you need to be aware of or if there are certain nutritional needs you need. Every body is unique in its nutritional needs and daily values are largely based on averages. You may need more or less of a nutrient. Your doctor or a Registered Dietitian will be able to help you best.

Blog post by Ashley Crosby.

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