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Old Age and Diet: Does it Make a Difference?

As we grow, our nutritional needs change, from birth through to a senior age. Eating well is important for all ages to provide the right nutrition for health, vitality and quality of life. Unfortunately, many older people, for a variety of reasons, are not eating as well as they could, which leads to poor nutrition or, in some cases, malnutrition, which can be mistaken for an illness or disease itself.

Ageing on the Body

As we age, our bodies change in a variety of ways, from physiological and perceptual to general age-related conditions such as gastrointestinal or dental conditions. These changes influence how our body performs as a whole, which in turn has an effect on our nutritional intake, eating patterns and overall health. Those who receive private care tend to have better eating habits as their nutritional needs are attended to on a daily basis.

Physiological Changes

In later life, our nutritional needs change. Our energy expenditure decreases due to a slower basal metabolic rate and less physical activity. This means we require fewer calories in our diet. Our bodies also begin to function differently, with a redistribution of body composition, decreased kidney function and changes to our nervous system.

Perceptual Changes

As we age, we experience perceptual changes that can influence our nutrition, such as changes in taste, smell and hearing. Diminished taste buds can result in food flavours seeming more sour or bitter. When you lose the sense of smell, your desire to eat certain foods diminishes, often resulting in poor nutritional choices. Poor hearing affects our food experience and nutrition, and eating out may lose its appeal if you can no longer hear the people you are dining with.

Other body function changes that can result in a poorer nutritional intake include gastrointestinal and dentition. The loss of teeth or ill-fitting dentures can mean older people avoid hard or sticky foods. Chronic gastritis, delayed stomach emptying, gas and constipation resulting from eating healthy fruits and vegetables can mean that older people choose to omit them from their diet. An estimated 3.7 million seniors suffer from malnutrition and educating seniors and caregivers on the needs of an older person’s diet is essential. Having a live-in carer who is well trained and educated will ensure that your loved one receives a nutritionally balanced diet.

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Seniors, Vitamin Deficiencies and Malnutrition

Malnutrition in varying degrees is common among elderly people as well as various vitamin deficiencies. While we do not see extreme effects such as scurvy any longer, malnutrition due to imbalances in diet, nutrient deficiencies - and undernutrition generally - are regularly seen by physicians. Symptoms of this milder form are general malaise, lack of appetite and lack of overall wellness and interest. Inadequate intake of vitamins is common, and these include vitamin A, B, C, D, E, niacin and folic acid.

Other reasons for malnutrition are financial concerns which can result in a reduced food shopping budget, fear of personal safety when out shopping or lack of mobility. Other causes might include hospitalisation or institutionalisation, eating alone or lack of cooking or someone to cook for and the loss of a spouse or family member. When a person becomes malnourished, they are more susceptible to developing other illness and diseases. Additional adverse side effects can include psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and fatigue.

It is clear that nutrition plays a crucial role in the health and quality of life in an ageing population. For this reason, preventative medicine and a focus on good eating habits are vital in elderly care, especially among home care staff and dementia care personnel. Ensuring this senior age group has proper intake of minerals and vitamins and adequate nutrition, will keep them feeling healthy and maintain their quality of life for longer.

Healthy Diet

A healthy well-balanced diet for any age group should include a combination of the following:

  • Five portions of vegetables and fruit a day
  • Protein from fish, meat, pulses and egg sources
  • Carbohydrates such as potatoes, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, couscous and cereals
  • We should also limit the amount of alcohol and salt in our diets

While these are the basics for everyone, other specific nutrients that may be lacking in an older person’s diet, and it is important to include them. These include calcium, fat, fibre, fluids, iron, vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc.

If your loved one receives in-home care, ensure their caregiver is aware of all the dietary requirements your loved one needs. This is particularly important where your loved one receives Alzheimer’s or dementia care, as they may be prone to forgetting what they need to eat or to eat at all. For the best care at home, consider private live-in care where your loved one’s every need is looked after, including all nutritional requirements.

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