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Nutrition vulnerabilities increase as adults age

MSU Extension Service

May is Older Americans Month…

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Even people who can eat almost anything when they are young will eventually begin monitoring their calories, cholesterol, fiber, sodium or sugar as they get older.

Brent Fountain, associate professor of human nutrition with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said metabolism typically slows down as people age. The amount of calories a person needs usually goes down, and the percentage of protein he or she needs goes up.

“Senior adults are more vulnerable to nutrition issues, especially when financial or availability issues complicate food options,” Fountain said. “Those who live alone face additional challenges. They tend to eat less, at irregular times and with less variety. A balanced diet, regular meals and variety are very important. These factors can be magnified when taking medicines, either on a full or an empty stomach, at consistent times.”

Fountain said it also can be hard to get enough protein for people whose teeth are not in good shape. In such cases, he recommended milk and yogurt as good protein sources. Ideally, whole foods are the best options, but nutritional supplements also can be helpful.

“Anemia is common in the elderly because of reduced nutrition, especially B vitamins and iron,” he said. “Sometimes, people treat the symptoms -- feeling tired and worn down -- but not the problem. It may not be your sleep or depression that is an issue, but a nutritional problem.”

An additional concern is the acceptability of the food based on issues with chewing and digestion.

“Concerns about making it to the bathroom in time can limit a person’s interest in food or water,” he said. “Staying hydrated is very important to keep the digestive system working properly. While water is the best fluid, hydration can also come from soups and other nutrition options.”

Fountain recommended beginning each day with a glass of water and having fluid with every meal.

“People typically drink when they are thirsty, but that’s not a good determination for hydration. Senior adults may not become thirsty as often, but they still need fluids,” he said.

David Buys, an assistant professor in the MSU Extension Service and Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said food insecurity is a growing nutritional concern, especially in “food deserts,” where fresh food is either not available or not affordable.

“Seniors with mobility limitations are even more vulnerable and limited in fresh food options,” he said.

Buys encouraged senior adults to take advantage of food programs such as Meals on Wheels.

“If seniors can travel to congregant feeding locations, they can benefit from socialization opportunities, which are very important,” Buys said.

The health specialist said certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, can impact nutrition choices. While genetics could be the primary factors for some people, monitoring sugar and salt in the diet can be helpful with other issues, such as weight or water retention.

“Older adults need to see a health practitioner regularly to address problems before they become irreversible or to avoid them altogether,” Buys said.

Released: May 27, 2015
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