Nutrition Guide for Seniors
Changes in Your Body with Age
Your nutrition needs vary throughout life. And, when you reach your senior years, your dietary intake should change to match both your nutrient needs and support changes to your body as you age.
Changes in Your Body with Age
With age comes wisdom and years of life experience. And, as your body ages you will experience physiological changes including loss of bone mineral density, changes in muscle tissue, decreased absorption of some nutrients and an increased likelihood of developing high blood pressure.
Changes in Your Bones
Bone is a dynamic tissue – our body is continuously breaking down old bone tissue and replacing it with new bone tissue, however, this cycle changes over time. During our youth and teenage years we are building more bone than we are breaking down, if we give our bodies adequate amounts of the nutrients we need for optimal bone growth, namely calcium, phosphate and vitamin D.
Later in life, when we hit our elderly years, we break down more bone than we build making bone tissue weaker. When we lose too much, our bones can become porous and more prone to breaking, a condition called osteoporosis.
Though we can’t stop bone loss over time, we can slow this process down. Regular exercise, especially weight bearing exercise (lifting weights for instance) helps strengthen bone tissue making it stronger. In addition to physical activity, it is critical that seniors get 1,200 mg of calcium per day and 800 IU of vitamin D.
Calcium & Vitamin D
Good sources of calcium include dairy products and fortified orange juice as well as fortified soy, rice and almond milk. Fortified milk, some yogurts, mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light (the package will say if your mushrooms contain vitamin D) and some types of fish are good sources of vitamin D. If you aren’t getting enough of these vitamins from your diet, your physician may recommend a dietary supplement to help you support your needs.
Changes in Your Muscles
In addition to losing bone as we age, we also lose muscle tissue gradually, at a rate of approximately 1 – 2% each year after the age of 50 and 3% after age 60. If you are sedentary, your rate of loss is likely even higher than this. This process, called sarcopenia, can lead to decreases in strength, frailty and, problems maintaining balance.
In addition, losing muscle means you burn fewer calories every day. Though the difference in calories burned isn’t dramatic, it adds up over time and, the average adult will gain 1 lb. of fat per year from age 30 – 60. Aside from burning fewer calories, less muscle tissue means you may not be as physically active or exercise as intensely as you did in your younger years. This decline in physical activity also contributes to weight gain as we age.
Regular exercise, especially weight bearing exercise, can help seniors maintain and even build muscle tissue. However, seniors also need the right nutrients to help them preserve and build muscle – namely, protein.
Additional Nutrition Needs for Seniors
In addition to eating a good dose of protein at each main meal and consuming adequate amounts of vitamin D and calcium, seniors should be aware of the potential for vitamin B12 deficiency, which affects approximately 10-15% of those over the age of 60. Because seniors do not always exhibit classical symptoms of B12 deficiency including weakness, fatigue, constipation and weight loss, it may be wise to discuss this vitamin with your physician to determine if your vitamin B12 levels need to be checked when your blood is drawn during a routine physical.
Last but not least, it is important for seniors to watch their sodium intake. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends persons 51 years of age or older decrease their sodium intake to 1,500 mg or less per day because seniors are have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure.
By focusing on nutrient rich, healthy foods, and closely monitoring any changes in your health, you may enjoy better health during your elderly years, stay active and take part in all life has to offer!
1Pubmed Health, National Institutes of Health. Osteoporosis. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001400/Accessed August 23, 2011.
2Waters DL, Baumgartner RN, Garry PJ, Vellas B. Advantages of dietary, exercise-related, and therapeutic interventions to prevent and treat sarcopenia in adult patients: an update. Clin Interv Aging 2010;5:259-70. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2938033/?tool=pubmed
3Baik HW, Russell RM. Vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly. Annu Rev Nutr 1999;19:357-77.
4NIH, Office of Dietary Supplements. Supplement Fact Sheet, B12. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/vitaminb12 Accessed August 24, 2011.