Good nutrition not only adds years to life, but also life to years – a philosophy that becomes all the more important as we reach our 60s, 70s, 80s and perhaps 90s.
As our total energy needs naturally start to decrease and our bodies start to lose their ability to effectively absorb key nutrients from food, malnutrition becomes a risk. Add to this the possibility of chronic disease, resultant use of medication (which may interact with nutrients), poor dentition and changes in taste and odour perception, and you're faced with a very real problem.
But, according to Prof David Richardson, scientific advisor to the UK Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), it is possible to prevent malnutrition as you live to a ripe old age. You simply need to acknowledge the fact that your nutrient needs might have changed, and then make sure you eat more of the right foods and supplement where necessary*.
This is important news, as the world's ageing population (that is, people over the age of 60) is growing. It's estimated that this age group represented around 10% of the world's population in 1999; it's projected that in 2050, 20% of the world's population (over 2 billion people) will fall into this group.
When it comes to good nutrition beyond your 60s, Richardson recommends the following:
Lean muscle mass
Your body composition changes as you age. Interestingly, the lean muscle mass of normal men decreases from about 24kg in their 20s to about 13kg in their 70s.
This process (also referred to as "sarcopenia") can be slowed down by sufficient intake of protein, and more specifically the branched-chain amino acids (amino acids are the building blocks of protein).
Dairy, red meat and eggs are good sources of these amino acids.
Osteoporosis affects one in three women, and one in 12 men, over the age of 50.
To preserve bone health throughout old age, it's important to include the following in your diet:
Zinc, found in dairy products, red meat, eggs, poultry and soya beans.
Phosphorus, found in whole grains (especially oats), dairy products, red meat, poultry and seafood.
Magnesium, found in whole grains, spinach, whole-wheat bread, bran flakes and red meat.
- Calcium, found in milk, cheese, yoghurt, spinach and sardines.
- Vitamin D, found in egg yolk, cod liver oil, mackerel and salmon. Daily sun exposure also increases levels of this vitamin in your body.
- Vitamin K2, which is found in:
- green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, turnip greens and the dark green leaves of lettuce (about 100 microgram/100g);
- dairy products, meat, eggs (about 50 microgram/100g);
- fruit and cereals (about 15 microgram/100g)
Osteoarthritis, which affects many people over the age of 50, can result in loss of joint mobility and can significantly decrease quality of life. It's a major cause of disability, affecting 37% of the adult population and 85% of those over 80.
The following nutrients are thought to be beneficial to osteoarthritis sufferers:
- Glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate, which are best taken in supplement form.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and fresh tuna. If you don't eat fatty fish at least twice a week, consider taking an omega-3 supplement.
As you get older, your body becomes more susceptible to disease. So, now more than ever, it's important to give your immunity a boost.
Science suggests that the following nutrients could help:
- Vitamin B6, found in potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, chicken and mackerel.
- Folic acid, found in sweetcorn, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and fresh green vegetables.
- Vitamin A, found in sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage, pumpkin and spinach.
- Vitamin C, found in asparagus, citrus fruit, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and peppers.
- Vitamin E, found in wheat germ, prawns, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts and sunflower seeds.
- Zinc, found in dairy products, red meat, eggs, poultry and soya beans.
- Iron, found in spinach, dried fruit, offal, red meat, egg yolks and tuna.
- Selenium, found in brown rice, wheat germ, whole-wheat bread, poultry and tuna.
The composition of your gut flora changes with age. There is a reduction in the levels of friendly bacteria and the small intestine's ability to absorb nutrients from food gradually decreases.
Prebiotics and probiotics can, however, help counteract these problems. Prebiotics are non-digestible food products that stimulate the growth of "good" bacteria (probiotics) already present in the colon. In other words, prebiotics act as food for probiotics.
To give your body a pre/probiotic boost, be on the lookout for yoghurts that contain live AB cultures and prebiotics in the form of inulin or oligosaccharides. Good supplements are also available.
Brain and cognitive function
Mental impairment, confusion and dementia can have a severe impact on your quality of life and independence as you grow older.
Keep your mind sharp by ensuring an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids and protein (fatty fish are a good source of both), and a good balance of vitamins and minerals, particularly the B vitamins.
Heart disease is the number-one killer in the world, and it's estimated that one in every three men and one in every four women will have a heart condition before the age of 60. As you grow older, your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke increases.
Once again, be sure to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from fresh fish and/or supplements. Also make a point of including dietary antioxidants in your diet. Examples include:
- Anthocyanins, found in grapes, berries and cherries.
- Resveratrol, found in grapes and red wine.
- Lycopene, found in tomatoes.
- Lutein in spinach, kale and broccoli.
- Catechins in green tea.
- Quercetin in apples, onions and tea.
- Hesperidin in oranges.
- Sulforaphanes in broccoli, cabbage and kale.
- Diallyl sulphides in garlic.
- Isoflavones in soy beans.
- (Carine van Rooyen, Health24, updated December 2008)
*Health24 advises that you seek professional assistance from a registered dietician. To find a dietician in your area, visit www.adsa.org.za.
Hark, L. Deen, Darwin. (2006) Nutrition for Life: The Definitive Guide to Eating Well for Good Health. Dorling Kindersley (UK).