Nutrition and Aging
Last reviewed and revised by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on August 28, 2012
By Robin H. Abourizk, M.A., M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Numerous products from lotions and creams to dietary supplements are promoted as ways to prevent or slow down the aging process. Yet there is no hard scientific evidence that any of these items are effective.
Gerontologists (experts in aging) advocate instead that people focus on staying healthy and well so they can enjoy their favorite activities into middle age and beyond. Eating a balanced diet, which supplies all the necessary nutrients for health, is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Here are the key factors that influence your nutritional health as you age.
As we get older, our resting metabolic rate declines. This can lead to unwanted weight gain, which can increase your risk for certain chronic diseases. This decrease in metabolic rate is related to the loss of lean body mass as we age. To help lessen this effect:
Protein is necessary for tissue growth, repair and maintenance. Despite the need for fewer calories as we age, it's important to eat an adequate amount of protein each day.
It is estimated that 80% of adult Americans have periodontal disease. Good dental hygiene practices can help prevent it. If left untreated, periodontal disease can lead to problems with your teeth and chewing. As a result, you may avoid foods like fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. To prevent periodontal disease:
The senses of taste and smell are sometimes dulled by the aging process. Smoking and some medications can also alter your sense of taste. To preserve taste and smell:
There's no definitive data that antioxidant supplements, like vitamin C or E, can help prevent chronic diseases or delay the aging process. In fact, the known health benefits occur from eating foods rich in antioxidants (whole grains, fruits and vegetables) not from taking supplements. Include more of these in your diet:
CALCIUM AND VITAMIN D
The majority of our bodies' calcium is in our bones. This mineral is needed for the proper function of the nervous system, muscle contractions and blood clotting. Adequate calcium intake is crucial for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis; vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium. New evidence indicates that adults need more than the current recommendations, especially those who live in northern climates where there is less sunlight. (The body makes vitamin D from exposure to sunlight.)
Health care professionals generally do not recommend dietary supplements unless a person has a vitamin or mineral deficiency or a malabsorption problem. More and more research is showing that food, not pills or commercial drinks, is the best source of nutrients. Keep in mind:
Water is often the forgotten nutrient. But getting enough fluid is needed for almost all bodily functions.
When it comes to aging well in terms of nutrition, Hippocrates said it best: "Let food be your medicine."
Robin H. Abourizk, M.A., M.S., R.D., L.D.N. is the Associate Director of the Dietetic Internship in the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She is a Registered Dietitian and licensed in the state of Massachusetts. She holds masters degrees in Human Development and Gerontology from Saint Joseph College (CT) and in Clinical Nutrition from Boston University.