Helping Seniors Stay Healthy

The Right Nutrients Matter

When Julia, age 82, went to visit her doctor for an annual physical, she was surprised to hear she wasn’t eating well enough. In fact, she learned she was deficient in a few key vitamins.

“I try to eat a balanced diet with protein and veggies and all that,” she told her Home Instead® CAREGiver℠ “but the doctor said I have to take calcium and Vitamin D now. I don’t really understand why. I’ve survived this long without having to take vitamin pills!”

Julia didn’t understand that her nutrition needs changed as she aged. In fact, many seniors may be unaware of how they should modify their diet in order to maintain good health. Beyond the physiological changes that can cause nutrient requirements to change, seniors also may encounter other challenges that make getting adequate nutrition tricky. Poor dentition, medical conditions and mobility issues that make shopping for fresh foods difficult or nearly impossible can cause a senior to become deficient in key nutrients.

Here are a few age-appropriate dietary adjustments to include six key nutrients.

1. Calcium

Everyone begins losing bone mass to some degree as they age, but postmenopausal women experience bone wasting at a faster rate than men. Because of this natural decrease in bone mass due to aging, seniors likely need to consume higher levels of calcium to avoid osteoporosis. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended daily allowance for women over age 50 and men over age 70 is 1,200mg per day. Seniors can consume this amount through food by eating breakfast cereals fortified with calcium or by consuming several servings per day of dairy products like fat-free milk or yogurt. In older adults who have developed lactose intolerance or who simply do not have the appetite to eat three to four servings per day of calcium-rich foods, taking a calcium supplement can supply this vital nutrient if their doctor advises it.

2. Vitamin D

Like calcium, seniors need plenty of Vitamin D to keep their bones healthy. While Vitamin D requirements don’t increase with age, many older adults do not get enough of this essential vitamin. You can suggest that your loved ones have their Vitamin D level checked during their annual physical. If it is low, their doctor may recommend a supplement because it is very difficult to get adequate amounts of Vitamin D from food.

3. Sodium

Many seniors need to reduce their sodium intake due to a medical condition like high blood pressure or congestive heart failure. Some research suggests even those who do not have a cardiovascular issue can benefit from reducing sodium with age. Generally, healthy adults do not require more than 1,500mg of sodium per day--less than a teaspoonful--and healthy seniors probably should aim for even less. As a general rule, encourage seniors to buy salt-free foods whenever possible and to avoid adding table salt to what they cook.

4. Vitamin B12

People over age 50 face a higher risk of being deficient in Vitamin B12, possibly due in part to decreased nutrient absorption in the intestines caused by aging. Vitamin B12 is vital for proper nervous system function, and a deficiency can cause dementia-like symptoms. Good food sources of Vitamin B12 include fortified breakfast cereals, beef liver and clams. Because there are no good plant sources of B12, seniors who follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle may want to consider taking a multivitamin supplement that contains B12.

5. Fiber

Activity in the gut naturally slows down as a person ages, and this sluggishness can be exacerbated by certain medications, such as narcotic pain relievers. To avoid constipation, seniors might pay attention to consuming enough dietary fiber from sources such as whole beans, raw vegetables and whole fruits. If a senior can’t chew fiber-rich foods easily, recommend consulting his or her doctor to find out if a powdered fiber supplement dissolved in water would be appropriate.

6. Water

Aging can dull a person’s sense of thirst. If a senior doesn’t feel thirsty very often, he or she may not drink enough water. Adequate hydration helps the body system function well, and it promotes the absorption of medications and vitamins for maximum benefit. Older adults can track their water intake for a day or two to learn how much they’re actually consuming, then adjust as necessary. The Institute of Medicine recommends healthy men drink about three liters of water a day, and women should get just over two liters per day. However, if a senior has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure or other fluid-restricting diseases, he or she should closely follow the doctor’s instructions for fluid restriction.

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