by Elizabeth McMillan
There are certain facts of life, like normal wear-and-tear on a system and aging. Aging is a physiological process that can be done gracefully with a healthy lifestyle, filled with a balanced diet and physical activity. As we age there are structural changes in the body that affect nutrient intakes, like changes in smell, cognition, digestive motility and nutrient balance.
With normal wear-and-tear on the body, one of the first functions to slow down is digestion. This slowing greatly impacts healthy nutrition. To breakdown and metabolize foods, the digestion tract secretes enzymes and mucus, as we age these secretions lessen. Therefore, it is common to become more constipated as we age. Sufficient intakes of fiber, daily physical activity and proper hydration balance help to maintain intestinal fluidity. Irregular bowel movements not only impact digestion and absorption but also lead to changes in the kidneys, lungs and liver. Constipation can also slow the immune system.
As people age, there are also changes in sight, peripheral vision, hearing, smell and taste. These changes drastically impact nutrient needs because sight and taste are the first steps of digestion. When food does not smell or taste the same as it once did, it most often will not get eaten. Adding more flavor and seasonings may help with this; herbs like thyme, rosemary and basil have an aromatic alertness that satisfies. Decreased visual acuteness may also lead to less activity and a fear of cooking on the stove. It will also impact the ability to read nutritional labels and recipes. Although this seems like a minor change, it can drastically alter nutritional status over time.
In addition, energy requirements tend to decrease in senior years, however, adequate daily nutrient intake requirement remains the same. While calorie intakes are decreasing, it is vital to obtain the necessary nutrient intakes. This means balancing intakes for more nutrient-dense foods like fresh fruits and vegetables verses processed sources. Higher intakes of foods rich in folate, vitamins B-12, C, and A are especially important.
Water, often the neglected nutrient, is also vital. Research shows that even small decreases in fluid affect cognition. Many seniors have difficulty obtaining enough fluids because they are simply less thirsty.
Another forgotten nutrient is fiber. Fiber increases bulk in the intestines and helps to decrease instances of constipation. Fiber is also excellent at helping to reduce inflammation and cholesterol spikes. Other important nutrients to consider balancing are protein, calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients can be maintained through a balanced whole-foods diet.
Cognitive changes that occur during aging are affected by several vitamin intakes. Some of the nutrients involved are antioxidants, healthy fats and B vitamins. There is also a strong association with vitamin E and its protective measurements. DHA, an essential fatty acid found in fish is also extremely important in repairing and maintaining cognitive function.
Oxidative stress is another key factor that affects brain function. Higher intakes of antioxidants can eliminate the oxidative damage. Many of these nutrients that are associated with improving dementia exceed the dairy recommended intakes, and should be advised under guidance from a medical professional.
Although such changes in our sight, smell, digestion, and cognitive function come with age it is important to note that maintaining nutrient balance is the key to aging gracefully. Such physiological changes can be altered with a holistic approach that focuses on decreasing chronic diseases while equally improving the quality of our lives.
Elizabeth McMillan, MS, CNS, LDN, practices integrative nutrition therapy at Rose Wellness Center in Oakton, VA. She specializes in digestive health, chronic inflammation, energy optimization and weight problems. Elizabeth will work with your physician and your personal goals in order to create energizing wellness for a lifetime to come. For more information, visit RoseWellness.com.