This Older Americans Month, the Alliance for Aging Research Invites You to Learn About the Role of Nutrition in Healthy Aging
By Lindsay Clarke, J.D., Vice President of Health Education and Advocacy, Alliance for Aging Research
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living designates every May as Older Americans Month, an opportunity to “celebrate the strength of older adults and the aging network.” At the Alliance for Aging Research, we believe Older Americans Month offers the opportunity to celebrate older adults, while educating them and their families about the important role nutrition plays in healthy aging.
We know what we eat impacts our health, but we don’t always consider the impact of nutrition on disease prevention or growth. Without proper nutrition, our bodies can’t fight disease or even deal with the illnesses we may already have. Poor nutrition weakens our immune systems and leaves us vulnerable to infections, slower recovery times, delayed healing, muscle loss, frailty, falls, injuries like broken bones, disability, loss of independence, and disease complications.
It is important to the Alliance that we educate as many people as possible about all this and more. In fact, we just released a new video as part of this year’s Older Americans Month. The video, “Food for Thought: The Role of Nutrition in Healthy Aging,” simplifies the connection between good nutrition and healthy aging. It provides easy-to-understand information about the Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines, which help Americans navigate their nutritional needs and follow a well-rounded diet. The film challenges viewers to make positive changes in their food choices and underscores how aging impacts our nutritional needs. It reminds us that the way we nourish our bodies throughout our lives can have a significant impact on how we age.
Highlighted in the film are two nutrition-related diseases: sarcopenia and malnutrition. If you haven’t heard of sarcopenia, you’re not alone! An estimated 10 to 20 percent of older adults have sarcopenia, yet few people have heard of it. Sarcopenia is the progressive loss of skeletal muscle mass and function, caused by changes in the body including a decline in our ability to convert protein into muscle. It is a serious condition that causes increased disability, hospitalizations, need for long-term care, and even death. The Alliance leads the Aging in Motion coalition, a group of like-minded patient advocates who are working together to encourage more sarcopenia research and awareness.
Malnutrition is a disease caused by not getting the right nutrients and calories. It becomes more common with age, and anyone can become malnourished, even those who are overweight or obese. Malnutrition can lead to weight and muscle loss, frailty, falls, infection, and delayed healing of broken bones. The Alliance is a member of Defeat Malnutrition Today, a coalition focused on achieving greater recognition of malnutrition as a key indicator and vital sign of older adult health risk and increasing the rates of malnutrition screening and intervention.
While poor nutrition can lead to poor health, there is some good news: we ALL have the power to improve our health, add vitality to our lives, reduce the risk of nutrition-related diseases like malnutrition and sarcopenia, and increase our health spans—the number of years we live in good health. In fact, research shows that it’s never too late to make positive changes in our behavior!
It is important to remember that nutritional needs— and the ability to meet those needs— change with age. Older adults typically need fewer calories but more protein, calcium, fiber, and certain vitamins and minerals. Changes to taste, chewing, and swallowing can happen with age and make it more difficult to eat. Medical conditions, and the medications that treat them, are more common with age and can impact appetites and require changes to diet. Frailty, decreased mobility, and the need for help shopping and preparing meals can make it challenging to put healthy food on the table and social isolation can decrease appetites. Making it even more complicated, the body’s ability to absorb nutrients declines with age.
We need to pay attention to these changes (in ourselves and our loved ones) since it’s clear nutrition is critical in maintaining not only our health, but also our independence as we get older.
To learn more visit www.agingresearch.org/nutrition and watch “Food for Thought: The Role of Nutrition in Healthy Aging.” The video is also available in Spanish and free to download.
The Alliance for Aging Research is a member of the National Health Council.