Nutrition and Ageing
Ageing is one of those words that we all know what it means but it is quite hard to put into words. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines biological ageing as being ‘the impact of the accumulation of a wide variety of molecular and cellular damage over time. This leads to a gradual decrease in physical and mental capacity, a growing risk of disease and, ultimately, death’(1).
Because of biochemical, environmental and genetic differences between us we all age differently and developing healthy behaviours such as eating a balanced diet, participating in regular activity and not smoking is important for retaining or improving physical and mental capacity - and these healthy behaviours will be of benefit at whatever stage of life they are adopted.
Most of us can expect to live to 70 years or beyond these days. Since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled to over 70 years, although it depends on where you live. For example, in 2019 the country with the lowest life expectancy was the Central African Republic with 53 years, whereas in Japan they could expect to live 30 years longer. Where I am based, in France, in 2019 average life expectancy was 82.7 years and in the UK it was 81.3 years (2).
A longer life brings with it so many opportunities – a chance to pursue new activities, a new career, further education or pursuing a new passion. We may get the chance to not only participate in our children’s lives, but our grandchildren and even great grandchildren’s lives. We can really make the most of this longer life by taking care of ourselves so that we thrive in older age.
What part can our nutrition play in helping us to thrive into older age? Because we are each a unique result of our genetics, environment and diet, a Registered Nutritional Therapist who is trained in personalised nutrition will be able to help you optimise your chances of thriving into older age through a detailed examination of your medical history, family history, diet and lifestyle and a targeted nutritional approach specific to your own health concerns and goals. They work to the Functional Medicinal Model to try and find the underlying cause of a health concern and have access to functional and genetic testing as tools to get greater insight into someone’s biochemistry and to inform their approach. They are also trained in health coaching and will be able to support you to make healthy changes to your diet and lifestyle.
More generally, however, nutrition research has shifted from examining the effect of individual nutrients on ageing to the analysis of whole diets or dietary patterns as foods and nutrients interact in synergy when influencing our metabolic processes. There are parts of the world where populations show greater healthy ageing, which is described as living longer without disabilities and being more physically active even when aged over 90 years, and these parts are referred to as ‘Blue Zones’. Although these areas have different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, they share some common dietary characteristics, including diets that are rich in plant-based foods such as vegetables, beans, soyabean and lentils and low in meat. Lower risks of mortality, cardiometabolic disease and poor cognitive outcomes are also associated with higher plant-based food consumption and lower meat consumption.
High intakes of fruits, vegetables, fish, wholegrains and legumes/pulses and potatoes are associated consistently with longevity, better cardiometabolic and cognitive health. In contrast, diets rich in red meat and sugar-rich foods have been associated with an increased risk of mortality, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease.
These types of food, together with olive oil, and small amounts of dairy and red wine, are the backbone of the Mediterranean Diet which has been acknowledged since Renaissance times to have potentially beneficial health effects (3). This dietary pattern provides chemicals such as flavonoids, polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids that provide significant protection from inflammation and oxidative stress (a factor in ageing) and that can substantially reduce cardiovascular disease risk and beneficially affect cognition and overall mental health in older people.
A study last year (2020) examined the association between the level of adherence to the Mediterranean Diet and successful ageing in people over the age of 50 and concluded that a higher adherence to the Mediterranean Diet was associated with a higher level of successful ageing and that this dietary pattern should be strongly promoted to middle-aged and older people in order to achieve better ageing (4).
However, physiologic and psychosocial changes as we age can mean that our needs change from the age of 65 due to a reduction in activity levels, perhaps problems with eating, chewing or swallowing, impaired absorption of nutrients or lower income (5). Our immune system also may require enhanced nutritional support as it experiences immunosenescence – a decrease in effectiveness due to ageing - and older adults need more calcium and vitamin D to help maintain bone health.
But even if your energy requirements are less, you still need to get enough nutrients and so eating foods that give you lots of nutrients without adding calories is a good strategy such as fruits and vegetables of all different colours, whole-grains, fortified plant milks, sustainable seafood, ethically reared lean meat and poultry, beans, nuts and seeds. It is also important to drink around 1.5L of fluids a day – we can lose our sense of thirst as we age and so it is something we need to be proactive about.
A great way to add in extra nutrients if you find it difficult consuming enough is by blending the edible parts of fruits and vegetables or by juicing to make nutritious drinks.
These are just general guidelines; nothing can replace the personalised expert advice of a nutrition professional. I am ready to help you in your health goals. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me.
1. World Health Organisation. Ageing and health [Internet]. Fact Sheets. 2018 [cited 2021 Feb 22]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ageing-and-health
2. Roser M, Esteban O-O, Ritchie H. Life Expectancy - Our World in Data [Internet]. Life Expectancy. [cited 2021 Feb 22]. Available from: https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy
3. Kiefte-De Jong JC, Mathers JC, Franco OH. Nutrition and healthy ageing: the key ingredients for Ageing and Vitality. Proc Nutr Soc [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2021 Feb 22]; Available from: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0029665113003881
4. Foscolou A, D’Cunha NM, Naumovski N, Tyrovolas S, Chrysohoou C, Rallidis L, et al. The association between the level of adherence to the Mediterranean diet and successful aging: An analysis of the ATTICA and MEDIS (MEDiterranean Islands Study) epidemiological studies. Arch Gerontol Geriatr. 2020 Jul 1;89:104044.
5. DiMaria-Ghalili RA, Amella E. Nutrition in Older Adults: Intervention and assessment can h... : AJN The American Journal of Nursing [Internet]. American Journal of Nursing. 2005 [cited 2021 Feb 23]. Available from: https://journals.lww.com/ajnonline/Fulltext/2005/03000/Nutrition_in_Older_Adults__Intervention_and.20.aspx