n4 nutrition

Living longer with a healthy diet by Emily Greenfield

Aging, General Nutrition, Heart, Cardiovascular & Blood Health, Healthy Eating
Average Rating:
Number of Ratings:
To add you own rating or comments, you need to be a member. Join now, it's free!


A study published in last months Science journal suggests a drug has been found which can prolong lifespan. While this is exciting news, the drug unfortunately has side effects which negatively impact blood glucose levels and the release of insulin. It is true that ageing automatically increases the risk of many chronic diseases due to irreversible physiological changes in the body.  However, a healthy diet can increase our lifespan and quality of life without incurring the negative side effects that often accompany pharmaceutical drug intake.

What do we mean by ageing?

It is difficult to classify who is and isn’t old. Not everyone is ‘old’ at 65 as people age individually. Nevertheless, the aged are classified into four categories by years of age:

65 – 74           Old

75 – 84           Older old

85 – 89           Old old

95+                 Frail aged


Ageing is a progressive deterioration of the body over time which cannot be reversed. Deterioration includes a steady decrease in muscle and bone mass, an increase in fat mass and a decline in the function of organs such as the gut, kidneys and skin. These physiological changes can lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, obesity and dementia.

The main nutrition related issue in ageing is malnutrition, specifically, a lack of protein in the diet. This type of malnutrition increases the risk of infection, hinders wound healing and makes the risk of fractures more likely. The end result is early residential care and hospital admission which triggers deterioration in a downward spiral. Malnutrition is much more prevalent in those living in institutions (~33-68%) than in people living freely in the community (~5-30%) so it is very important to recognise malnutrtition in the community to prevent early admission.

So why is malnutrition such an issue in the ageing population?

There are many physical changes as we age which can lead to a decrease in food intake. These include less energy expenditure leading to feeling less hungry and eating less, physical disability, poor dentition, difficulty swallowing and cognitive impairment. Other factors affecting food intake include changes in taste and smell, poor saliva flow and reduced digestive capacity. Compounding these physical changes are environmental and socio-economic factors such as low income, poor nutrition knowledge, lack of transport, difficulty shopping and inadequate cooking skills. Finally, there may be psychological factors including bereavement, loneliness, depression and a loss of interest in food.

What nutrients are most at risk in this age group?

Together with physiological changes in the body, medications can interfere with vitamin and mineral metabolism.  Vitamins and minerals at risk generally include B2, B6, B12, folate, calcium and zinc. The aged can also be at risk of Vitamin D deficiency due to less sun exposure and impaired synthesis of Vitamin D from the skin and other organs.

What can be done?

Nutrition is a risk factor that can be modified to prevent disease and improve quality of life in the aged. Dietary changes may have an even greater impact on reducing risk factors for chronic disease in the aged than at any other time in ones life. Due to a decrease in metabolic rate and energy expenditure, energy needs are lower in this age group. However, nutrient needs remain high which can present a challenge. Nutrient dense foods which are relatively low in energy are to be encouraged and one of the easiest ways to do this is to reduce fat in the diet. Fruit, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, lean meats and fish are all nutrient dense foods without being high in fat, sugar or sodium. A wide variety of foods in the diet is also important to ensure the diet contains enough calcium, iron, fibre, protein and vitamins. Physical activity should be encouraged, preferably resistance training, to preserve lean body mass. Physical activity also has the advantage of increasing appetite which is important for preventing malnutrition.

Author: Emily Greenfield

Share your experiences: 

Have you got any tips for healthy aging? Share your experiences below. 



References and further reading

Nutrition and Ageing http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09322.html

Nutrition for older persons  http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/ageing/en/index.html

NHMRC Nutrient Reference Values http://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/index.htm

Amanatidis, S (2011) Nutrition in Older People Lecture, University of Sydney

Living longer with a healthy diet by Emily Greenfield