Our elderly population has special nutritional concerns and special requirements. This is related to the fact that energy intake, protein intake and vitamin intake during the later years of life are markedly decreased. Probably the biggest concern raised in the elderly population is an excessive intake of calories that leads to obesity. It is important to maintain an adequate caloric intake but not an excessive caloric intake in the latter years of life in order to maintain body weight. This becomes difficult as the elderly population becomes less mobile and their diet relies more and more on processed and convenience foods.
Maintaining a proper body weight, improves ones ability to deal more effectively with the many changes that occur with aging.
It has been shown that it is important to maintain an adequate amount of protein intake perhaps 50-70 grams daily. This daily requirement should be divided evenly into 3 meals per day. This helps to maintain muscle mass and to slow the progression of global muscle weakness which slowly occurs as one ages. Protein deficiency in the elderly diet increases the risk of osteoporosis, stimulates inflammatory processes within the body and lowers several important hormone levels in the body. All of these changes create a faster decline but actually can be prevented with an appropriate protein intake.
Vitamin D, calcium
Vitamin D and calcium intake are very important to prevent mineral bone loss. In older populations exposure to sunlight decreases significantly causing a relative deficiency in vitamin D. Intake of foods rich in vitamin D and calcium such as milk and cheese fulfill this important dietary requirement. If a daily intake of milk products is not possible, it is very important to supplement the diet with calcium and vitamin D. The usual recommendation for all patients not consuming milk is to add 1000 mg to 1500 mg of calcium daily with a reliable source of vitamin D, perhaps 1000 International Units daily.
Regular intake of fruits and vegetables either fresh canned or frozen is important to provide vitamins, minerals and potassium to the diet.
Five servings of fruits and five servings of vegetables daily are important in balancing your diet. This is seen in the modified My Pyramid accompanying this article. If a good variety of fruits and vegetables is not easily consumed on a daily basis, then supplementation with a good multivitamin vitamin tablet is appropriate.
Finally exercises are a critical component to a healthy lifestyle. The base of the modified My Pyramid shows that nothing is more effective for improving overall well-being than an active lifestyle, filled with walking, bicycling, gardening, and other aerobic activities.
Being active is important to prevent age associated muscle wasting and promotes flexibility and healthy joints. It can be very difficult to encourage seniors to exercise and oftentimes an organized exercise program such as the YMCA provides is an excellent way to promote physical fitness in all age groups.
I think all of these above areas are important to promote a healthy lifestyle but it is difficult to implement all of these above considerations into our life. I would encourage the reader to focus on one area at a time and try to incorporate one of these elements at a time into your lifestyle.
Dr. Steve Mattson practices internal medicine and pediatrics with Trinity Health in Minot.