Here in the 21st century, there is no end to our focus on the baby boom generation. Baby boomers will be the key factor in the coming “agequake” when the elderly will comprise a much larger share of the population. The first “boomers” reached 65 in 2011 and by 2030, the 65 and older will number one in five.
The needs of an aging population will shape every facet of society in the next millennium, including nutrition. Most experts agree that the dietary needs of people in their 50s or 60s are different from those in their 70s and 80s. With the coming demographic shift, food scientists and gerontologists are faced with the challenge to maintain a higher degree of physiologic performance throughout the life cycle so that the individuals in our society are more independent, more mobile and more able to care for themselves. In order to achieve this, it is extremely important that we look at those health patterns in which we can intervene. Clearly, diet and nutritionare going to be very important aspects of this approach.
Relatively little is known about how the nutritional needs of older people differ from those who are younger. Although many people enjoy a generally healthy and vital old age, age-related health problems do increase with advancing years and often have an effect on eating habits.
The science of gerontology, or the study of normal aging, is still quite new and is giving us new insights intoaspects of aging that in the past have been accepted as “normal.” While there is a similar pattern of changes that take place among all humans as they age, these changes can occur at different rates in different individuals.
There is abundant evidence to show that an optimal level of nutritioncan extend the lifespan and improve the quality of life. Researchers have found out that vegetarians suffer from less heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and some forms of cancer. Vegetarians also tend to live longer than non-vegetarians.
Good eating habits throughout life can help promote physical and mental well-being. For older people, eating right can help to minimize the symptoms of age-related change that, for some, can cause discomfort or inconvenience.
Older people tend to take less energy or calories than younger people due to a natural decline in the rate of metabolism and decrease in physical activity. When the total intake of food decreases, it follows that intakes of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals also decrease.
Many other factors can affect the nutritional needs of older people and how successfully they meet those needs, including their access to food. For instance, some of the changes that take place as people age can affect the kinds of foods they can tolerate and some can affect their ability to shop for or prepare food. As people age, problems such as high blood pressure or diabetes become more common, requiring certain dietary modifications. Digestive problems become more common and some people may have trouble chewing or swallowing.
A sensible program of exercise, such as walking may be wise. People who are physically active have an easier time controlling their weight while still taking in more calories than those who are sedentary. The higher the calorie intake, the more likely a person is to obtain all the nutrients he or she needs.
With few exceptions, vitamin and mineral supplements are rarely necessary for people how eat a varied diet and enough food to meet their energy needs. In fact, taking large does of some vitamins and minerals may cause toxicity due to the fact that the elderly clear these elements from their blood and tissues more slowly. You best bet is to get the nutrients you need from whole foods, without the use of supplements, unless otherwise prescribed by you physician.
One way to help relieve digestive problems such as abdominal discomfort, flatulence, bloating or burning sensations is to eat smaller, more frequent meals over the course of the day instead of eating one or two larger meals. Avoid fatty foods, alcohol and carbonated beverages. If heartburn is a problem, avoid reclining immediately after meals, or if you do so, keep the back elevated to at least 30 degrees so that you are not lying flat on your back. Regular exercise can also help to minimize trouble with intestinal gas.
Depression, which is common among the elderly, because of changes in living conditions and lifestyle, loss of spouse, certain medications and complications in preparing meals, can result in a loss of interest in food. Sometimes eating smaller, more frequent ‘min-meals’ can help. It may also be a good idea to seek out meals in a social context. For instance, join restaurant outings with friends and enjoy a meal in their company.
The older people get, the more likely it is that they will develop medical problems that require a special or therapeutic diet. People who develop diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, for instance, may have special considerations in meal planning. Most conditions, however, benefit from a diet that is high in fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and low in animal products. Well-planned vegetarian diets can help control blood sugar levels. By limiting fat, salt and sugar, vegetarian diets can also be useful in controlling high blood pressure, heart disease and other conditions.