Nutrition for Healthy Aging
~ by Jennifer Christensen
Everyone is talking about food these days! Heartfelt discussions about where the food is grown, how wide the chickens can roam and what exactly GMO stands for have replaced calorie and carb counting as topics for the lunch room. The good news is that being mindful of what we eat is helping more of us maintain a healthy weight throughout our lives while also helping the health of our planet. Along with regular exercise and living in a smoke-free environment, proper nutrition is a big contributor to longevity.
As our bodies age, our nutritional requirements change as well. Maintaining a healthy weight, preserving bone density, reducing cholesterol and keeping blood pressure under control affect potentially high-stakes health issues. More serious conditions that require nutritional diligence are diabetes, cancer and congestive heart failure – possibly even dementia.
Advice from a Dietitian
According to Pippa Purdy, RD with an MS in Nutrition from Columbia University and dietitian at The Osborn, most of the conventional wisdom applies to all ages: eat fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein and plenty of whole grains, and avoid processed foods. Among the elderly population, there are significant additional factors to consider when planning menus.
In her role as Dietitian at The Osborn, Purdy determines the appropriate diets for the residents living in The Pavilion, Osborn’s skilled nursing facility, based on their various health conditions›.
“It is important that diabetic patients limit the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates in their diet. Cardiac patients need to limit sodium. As much as possible, I try to personalize their diet according to their unique circumstances.”
Purdy notes that weight loss is also a concern and being too restrictive has its risks as well. She monitors the weights of all the residents in The Osborn’s skilled nursing facility. “Weight loss can be an indication of a variety of issues that require intervention including: increased difficulty feeding oneself, acute illness, fluid fluctuations, or difficulty swallowing.”
As we age our appetite tends to diminish, we move less and are on more medications. In those situations, Purdy says that pre-packaged supplements can be useful to add in between meals for additional calories and protein. She’s also a big proponent of fresh smoothies!
Don’t Miss a Meal!
Simply forgetting to eat can be another issue. Globally, nearly 50 million people are living with dementia, most of which is caused by Alzheimer’s. In the United States, one third of people over 85 are already affected by dementia. People with dementia may not remember to eat or may not be able to express their interests and aversions around food — often resulting in decreased intake.
Purdy and the multi-disciplined care team at The Osborn evaluate residents from different perspectives to determine what might be causing the decline in appetite. “Anything from depression, medical issues or pain can be impacting their desire to eat. It is truly a group effort to determine the reasons for a decline in appetite so that we can identify the best intervention to help improve their intake,” says Purdy.
Ultimately, Purdy says her goal is to keep residents as healthy as possible while making sure that their quality of life is taken into consideration. “Food sustains people in more ways than just maintaining health. Enjoying food is one of life’s great pleasures and one that should be an integral part of everyone’s day,” she says. “There is a time and a place to leave ‘balanced nutrition’ out of equation and just let them eat cake!”