Posts Tagged ‘Healthy Aging’

Men Must Learn to Cope with Longer Lives

March 28th, 2016 at 8:10 pm by timigustafson

Men used to have shorter life spans than women, according to statistics that seemed unchanging for many decades. But lately the gap started to close, and at least part of the male population is now making headways in terms of healthy aging and longevity.

Causes for higher mortality rates among men were traditionally seen in health problems like heart disease, pulmonary disease, liver disease, and greater accident proneness, all mostly related to diet and lifestyle habits.

Many of these outcomes are related to behaviors that are encouraged or accepted more in men than in women, according to government research, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, eating highly caloric foods, and also engaging in risky activities like gun use, extreme sports, and working in hazardous jobs.

Smoking in particular is still seen as a leading contributor to early deaths. On the other hand, reduction in tobacco use is being credited as one of the most important factors in the improvement of public health and life expectancy, especially among middle-aged and older former smokers.

However, the benefits of positive lifestyle changes are not equally distributed. Almost only educated and well-off males are seeing their odds turning in their favor. High earners in non-hazardous occupations who live in safe and clean environments, can afford to eat well and have easy access to healthcare can expect to live significantly longer than their less fortunate counterparts, recent surveys report.

Surprisingly, it is older women – even if they live reasonably long lives – who nowadays suffer from more diseases and disabilities than other demographics. One reason may be that aging females, especially if they live alone, have on average fewer economic resources available to them. Therefore they may not be as able to accommodate their declines in functioning when they occur, says Dr. Vicki Freedman, a researcher at the Population Studies Center of the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study on age-related health issues.

Unfortunately, debilitating illnesses tend to build on each other, she says. That, of course, applies to both sexes. It becomes harder to perform daily routines like dressing, bathing, cooking, shopping, driving, etc, which all worsen outcomes in many ways.

The fact is that we cannot simply judge the health status of older generations in terms of added years of life expectancy, but that we should look more closely at the quality of their day-to-day lives.

While expanding lifetimes can certainly be seen as part of healthy aging, how this extra time can be filled and enjoyed may be the more compelling issue.

For aging Baby Boomers, this may become the greatest challenge they have to face yet, namely how to make their unprecedented longevity sustainable, both for themselves and for society at large.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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How to Avoid the Retirement Trap

March 21st, 2016 at 7:30 am by timigustafson

Retirement is an artifice, an invention of the 20th century. Before then, people hardly ever retired. They stopped working when they couldn’t do their (mostly physically demanding) jobs any longer, and soon thereafter they usually died. Now, every day about 10,000 members of the Baby Boomer generation enter what is commonly considered retirement age at 65.

What does this mass exodus from the work force entail? Predictions range from the sanguine to the dire about the prospects of today’s retirees. On the one hand, especially well-to-do older adults who are reasonably healthy have many more options to fill their ‘golden years’ with activities and pursuits than their forbearers could ever imagine. By contrast, insufficient financial security and chronic diseases can lead to a rather precarious endgame. For most, it will be something in between.

For the lucky ones, retirement can really be a glorious time. According to a recent study, being freed from work-related and other demands can allow for lifestyle changes that enhance health and well-being.

“A major life change like retirement creates a great window of opportunity,” says Dr. Melody Ding, a Senior Research Fellow of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, Australia, and lead author of the study report. “It’s a chance to get rid of bad routines and engineer new, healthier behaviors.”

That would be a desirable outcome. However, there are also challenges waiting for retirees that are not always easily overcome. Routines that helped structure their days and that are now falling by the wayside can leave a considerable void. Those who have no plans other than getting more sleep or enjoying a favorite pastime (golf comes to mind) can find themselves unprepared for that extra amount of leisure. Losing one’s professional identity, feeling no longer needed or being bored can result in low self-esteem and depression.

One study from Harvard University found that newly retired men and women faced a 40 percent higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke than their contemporaries who were still in the workforce. The increase was most pronounced during the first year of retirement and gradually leveled off after that.

Moving from working to not working brings a whole host of disruptions along, many of which don’t become immediately evident. But the effects are very real and can lead to serious problems if they are not constructively addressed.

“Our [study] results suggest we may need to look at retirement as a process rather than an event,” says J. Robin Moon, a researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health and lead author of the study.

The process can be a smooth or a bumpy ride, depending on a wide range of factors.

Financial stability is certainly part of it, but for retirement to succeed, many other components need to be in place as well. Most important are a supportive social life as well as engagement in meaningful, stimulating activities such as travel and continuing education, among countless other options. To maintain both physical and mental health, there are no better means than preventive measures, including an age-appropriate eating and exercise regimen.

However, such steps should be taken long before actual retirement takes place. People need to prepare themselves thoroughly for this transformative time, preferably several years in advance, experts recommend.

The tremendous changes newly retired persons experience can affect their lifestyles favorably or unfavorably, says Else Zantinge, a researcher at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands who conducted studies on the health affects of retirement. The pre-retirement period should be used as an opportunity to make the transition as easy as possible.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Of Loss and Letting Go

February 16th, 2016 at 6:30 pm by timigustafson

I recently saw the movie “The Lady in the Van” with Maggie Smith in the leading role. In a nutshell, the film is the adaptation of a memoir about an elderly women who has fallen on tough times and is forced to live out her late years in a shabby van parked in the driveway of her reluctant host, a playwright who eventually tells her story. While reviews have been mixed, it is clear that the subject matter touches on a critical issue: How much, or how little, does it take for things to go awry as we age? Like in this case, growing old can be outright scary.

The fear of aging, of course, is not limited to financial concerns, although they often take center stage. Deteriorating physical and mental health, loss of loved ones, social isolation, and the progressive inability to cope with daily tasks and challenges can make people dread the so-called “golden years” rather than embrace them.

Such fear can manifest itself in numerous ways. “Gerascophobia,” as the scientific term is called, can generate forms of stress and anxiety that can be quite debilitating. These may oftentimes be unfounded, but they are not necessarily irrational. Aging does in fact entail significant losses and forces us to let go of what we have long taken for granted.

Especially in our society that so strongly favors self-reliance, it can be hard to imagine how a life dependent on the help of others could be worthwhile. Surveys show that most adults are more afraid of losing their independence in their twilight years than they are of death.

And yet, considering that ever-larger portions of the population are entering their senior years, we will sooner rather than later be forced to re-examine our views of aging with all its implications.

Yes, many people live longer and are healthier and more active late in life than their parents and grandparents could ever imagine. But many also struggle with chronic diseases and disabilities that diminish their prospects. Learning to deal with all sides of the aging process is a real challenge.

“Life is an Indian giver,” as a song by the rock band Modest Mouse goes. It gives us everything and then takes it all away again.

While this is undoubtedly true, it is another matter how we relate to that obvious fact.

By definition, loss is something that happens to us against our will. We don’t normally perceive it as a gift, a blessing, a chance, or anything else positive. The losses that come with age are generally impoverishing, not enriching or enhancing. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

“For some, the downsizing that inevitably comes with age is like living in a mournful country-western song, suffering one loss after another. Angry and embittered, they become cranky or depressed. For others, it becomes a kind of spiritual journey, an opportunity to affirm what is really of value. Finding new interest and meaning in life around them, they become wise and content,” writes Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker, a psychologist, family counselor, and columnist for Psych Central.

Finding something new in the disappearance of the old and familiar is indeed the best outcome we can hope for – if we are open to it. A friend of mine once compared the way she tried to handle her own aging experience to “pruning of an old tree.” You cut back and dispose of what is no longer fruitful. But you also make space for anew growth, and you may be surprised at times what still emerges.

If loss is what we undergo passively, letting go – consciously and willingly – is the active countermeasure we can take. This is not resignation in the face of the inevitable, but the human spirit staying in control and remaining intact, regardless.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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For Healthy Aging, Less Is More

September 9th, 2015 at 12:41 pm by timigustafson

Several recently published studies on aging all seem to lead to the same conclusion: when it comes to diet and lifestyle choices, older adults are well advised to practice moderation. Whether it concerns weight management, physical activity, or alcohol and tobacco use, health experts urge people to consider their limitations and changing needs as they approach their senior years.

One such study, led by researchers at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), found that gradual calorie restriction in mid-life could help lower the risk of many diseases later on. The findings confirm what has previously been shown only in animal studies, namely that reducing food intake could have a positive impact on aging and longevity, thereby supporting the message that weight control becomes ever more important in the second half of life.

Similarly, experts recommend age-appropriate behavior when it comes to exercise. While physical activity is crucial for healthy aging – as it is for good health in general – there are limits to what people can endure as they grow older. Of course, much depends on a person’s individual fitness level, but certain precautions should be observed regardless. The good news is that even smaller doses of regular exercise (emphasis on regular) can produce significant benefits, not only for the aging body but, equally as important, for the mind. As studies have shown, even less strenuous activities like walking, bicycling, or swimming can help improve heart health as well as cognitive abilities. But for seniors, trying harder may not necessarily lead to better results.

It has often been suggested that drinking alcohol, particularly red wine, may be beneficial for the heart. To be sure, those claims are not beyond dispute, and the jury is still out on what alcohol actually does for people’s well-being other than make them feel good. What is well established, however, is that consuming high amounts is dangerous and can have enormously detrimental consequences in multiple ways, including for aging. As it gets older, the human body becomes increasingly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol and is less able to handle its toxicity, according to research. That is why the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends for seniors no more than one glass of alcoholic beverages per day.

It goes without saying that avoidance or cessation of tobacco use is a good idea at any time, but, again, it becomes a more pressing matter at an advanced age.

Most of the studies mentioned reaffirm other findings of the past. For instance, according to the guidelines for healthy aging by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all adults over the age of 50 should be conscious of their changing health needs. Dietary choices should depend on activity level and other factors like eating styles, food sources, and so on. Following a regular exercise regimen can be instrumental in slowing down the natural aging process, but age-related limitations must be taken into account. Some lifelong pleasures and habits like drinking or smoking may no longer be tolerable. Counseling and other support measures for cessation may be helpful.

Another topic that is often not considered enough is the psychological component in all this. If those guidelines and recommendations are perceived only as restraint or deprivation, they will be hard to adhere to. Old habits, as the saying goes, die hard. As we grow older, we all experience losses and are forced to let go. For this, it is of great importance to see the larger picture and appreciate the immeasurable value of good health, without which nothing else matters.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Don’t Grow Old Sick, Experts Warn Baby Boomers

June 17th, 2015 at 11:57 am by timigustafson

As more and more members of the Baby Boomer generation – those born between 1946 and 1964, about 75 million in all – enter retirement age and move from commercial healthcare plans to Medicare, the national insurance program for Americans over the age of 65, the question becomes more urgent how the ever-rising medical costs will be absorbed by society.

Roughly three million people will be added annually to the program over the next two decades or so, and it will affect and likely change every part of healthcare as we know it, according to experts.

Cause for concern does not come from these changing demographics per se but rather the fact that Baby Boomers have turned out to be less healthy and less prepared to shoulder (at least part of) their medical expenses by themselves than previously hoped.

Although the average life expectancy has dramatically increased over the last half century, Boomers are not necessarily better off in terms of their health status than those before them. Many have to cope with serious health issues for decades, and the existing medical system is not prepared for such drawn out crises.

Two-thirds of today’s Medicare beneficiaries suffer from multiple chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease, and pulmonary problems, according to surveys. The sickest among them, about four million, or 15 percent, account for almost half of the current annual costs of about $324 billion.
Medicare data show that healthcare spending on one person with just one chronic disease amounts to nearly three times that of someone who has no long-terms ailment.

The good news is that much of these expenses could be reduced with diet and lifestyle improvements. Unfortunately, too many Boomers tend to overindulge, and adhere to a predominantly sedentary lifestyle, says Dr. Dana E. King, a family physician and researcher at West Virginia University who has studied chronic conditions among Baby Boomers for many years. Nearly 40 percent are obese, and more than half don’t get any regular exercise at all, he laments.

Also, he says, patients often rely exclusively on medications as their remedy, when in fact the drugs they are taking should be used in conjunction with lifestyle changes.

In one of his studies, involving 15,000 Baby Boomers, Dr. King found that participants who implemented health-promoting diet and lifestyle changes over a period of just four years reduced their risk of dying from a heart attack by an impressive 40 percent.

With better information and greater awareness of the importance of such changes, we could still stave off the otherwise impending crush on the medical system that will surely occur if the chronic diseases these people are now plagued with are not brought under control, he says.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Independent Living Considered a Top Priority Among Seniors

May 22nd, 2015 at 2:32 pm by timigustafson

Every day, roughly 10,000 members of the Baby Boomer generation – those born between 1946 and 1964 – reach the official retirement age of 65. Many will continue to enjoy a high level of physical and mental health and be better off in multiple aspects than preceding generations. But a growing number will suffer from steep decline and be plagued by debilitating illnesses, some of which could have been prevented in time.

One of the most dramatic consequences of age-related deterioration is loss of independence, and it is more feared by seniors than almost any other outcome. For many, even an untimely death seems preferable to becoming beholden to others, according to surveys.

Not only do most older adults not want to become a burden to their loved ones, nearly all – 90 percent of respondents to polls – plan to live out their days in their own homes instead of entering a retirement facility.

“Aging in place,” as it is now widely called, is particularly popular among seniors who cherish the lifestyle they have become accustomed to and wish to maintain for as long as possible. Besides staying indefinitely within one’s four walls, it also includes being able to move around safely in neighborhoods and communities as well as having access to vital resources such as food outlets, public transportation, day-to-day services, places of entertainment, etc.

The concept has also given birth to a fast-growing industry that caters to these exact needs and desires. According to a new report by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, an advocacy group with focus on community building, eliminating obstacles and breaking down barriers that tend to isolate older citizens are important first steps for an aging population’s ongoing participating in communal life. Efforts to make urban and suburban surroundings more senior-friendly – for example by facilitating greater walkability – can benefit members of all ages and should therefore be universally embraced, the report suggests.

On the other hand, as critics have pointed out, staying put for as long as possible may not always be the best option. The prospect of ending up in an assisted-living establishment, separated from loved ones and surrounded by strangers, is so repulsive to some people that they would rather rot away in their own place before accepting much-needed help, says Dr. Steven M. Golant, a professor of gerontology at the University of Florida.

Despite their advanced age, older people tend to overestimate their strength and ability to cope with everyday challenges on their own. Some of it may have to do with the messages we receive in the media about aging and how much better we all fare compared to our forbearers. It makes some folks feel close to invincible when that is definitely not the case.

The whole “aging-in-place” model is probably being oversold, Dr. Golant argues. It may be a profitable idea for home healthcare providers, builders specializing in home modifications for senior residents, financial institutions offering reverse mortgages, etc. But it is not a one-fits all solution for an aging generation.

“There are many downsides to the aging-in-place experience,” he adds. “Obviously there’s a good side. […] But older people are a really diverse lot. Their ability to count on family members is very variable. Their ability to cope with their declines and their losses in health and people is very variable. So to suggest indiscriminately that aging in place is good for everyone is an irresponsible position to take.”

On the upside, one might add, it is also welcome news that living independently at any age has become easier in many ways, including through technological innovations and improved services. As everyone else, today’s seniors have countless opportunities to stay connected and get assistance if needed. Food can be ordered online, as can transportation and most other services. All this can secure a large degree of independence. What it cannot do is to overcome loneliness and isolation, which unfortunately are also part of aging for so many…

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Healthy Aging: You Are as Old as You Perceive Yourself

November 5th, 2014 at 4:58 pm by timigustafson

How would you feel if you were given the chance to turn back the clock and return to the time and place of your youth? How would it be if you found the world exactly as it was then, and all the people and things you knew and loved just as you remembered them? For a small group of men in their 70s this fantasy became a reality as they participated in an elaborate experiment that placed them literally in a time warp, on par with what otherwise only happens in movies.

The scenario was set up by Harvard psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer who has a long history of unusual study approaches. For this event, she had eight septuagenarians take up residence at a former monastery, which was transformed into a 1950s establishment, complete with vintage radio and black and white TV.

While the participants were in relatively good shape in terms of physical and mental capacity, some showed early stages of memory loss and other age-related impediments.

Each day of their stay, they socialized with one another, discussing sports and other “current events” they were reminded of, like the first American satellite launch in 1958.

The idea was not to make these men just reminisce about times long gone by but to relive them as authentically as possible, to the point where they became almost their younger selves again, Dr. Langer explained in a recent interview with the New York Times.

As it turned out, at the end of the experiment, the aging men felt invigorated, looked younger, acted younger, sat and walked taller, had better dexterity, and even their eyesight improved. While they were waiting for a bus to transport them back home, some even engaged in a spontaneous touch-football game, they were so jazzed about the experience.

“They put their mind in an earlier time, and their bodies went along for the ride,” Dr. Langer said.

She and her research team found similar results in a number of different studies on the subject of age perception. For instance, nursing home residents did better on memory tests when given certain tasks like caring for plants in their rooms, compared to their counterparts who had no such responsibilities. Or seniors who took on the role of airline pilots by taking the controls in a flight simulator, and who showed remarkable improvement of their eyesight over the course of the exercise. These are just two examples of the many imaginative tests those scientists came up with.

While Dr. Langer did much pioneering in her work, she is not the only one who found connections between aging and perception. A new study from Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley concluded that people who saw their natural aging process as a positive development – i.e. by becoming wiser, happier, less stressed, etc. – were able to preserve their physical and mental abilities better than others who harbored negative thoughts about old age.

“Negative age stereotypes that older individuals assimilate from their culture predict detrimental outcomes, including worse physical function,” wrote Dr. Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology and behavioral psychology at Yale and lead author of the study report.

In other words, the way we think of ourselves as we grow older determines at least to some extent how well or how poorly we fare. If we perceive aging purely as a loss of vigor and vitality, nature will probably help us along on that path. If we see it as a chance to continue with life’s journey, albeit perhaps in different ways, we may reap unexpected rewards.

Nobody can claim that even the best prospects don’t come with limitations. Of course they do, that’s part of being mortal. But given the choice, I know where I’d put my money…

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Creative People Age Better, Study Finds

July 25th, 2014 at 1:30 pm by timigustafson

Do creative and artistically inclined people have advantages over the rest of us mere mortals who can barely draw a stick figure or whistle a simple tune? There are indications that individuals who are able to use their talents also tend to fare better in other ways, including their physical and mental health, compared to others whose existence mainly consists of repetitiveness and routine. Still, scientists have never been able to prove that creativity is indeed a contributing factor to humans’ wellbeing.

Picasso was undoubtedly one of the most creative persons one can think of, and he maintained a zest for life and work well into his 90s. But so was Mozart, who tragically died at 35 years of age. Hemingway, perhaps the greatest writer of his generation, couldn’t pen a single word for long periods of time – mostly because of drunkenness. Some famous artists have looked upon their gift as a curse rather than a blessing. So, should we assume any connection between creativity and wellbeing at all?

One study that looked into the health status and life expectancy of creative people found that creativity may indeed be associated with delayed decline in cognitive and physical health at an advanced age. While it remains unclear whether engaging in creative activities or the use of creative energies actually contribute to the slowing of the natural aging process, it is conceivable, according to the researchers, that creative people find better ways of coping with their diminishing capabilities than their less resourceful counterparts. On the other hand, there are highly creative persons who only function superbly in a specific area of their interest and are not better equipped for problem solving beyond their expertise, for example when it comes to their health needs.

Prior research, including a landmark study from Seattle on the “Relationship Between Personality and Cognition,” has shown that attitude and outlook on life were important components for maintaining the mental health of seniors in their 70s and 80s.

Experimentation, openness to new ideas, and flexibility in dealing with changes are the essence of creativity, and they are also crucial ingredients for healthy cognitive aging, the researchers say.

Thankfully, you don’t have to be a genius or maestro yourself to stay healthy and vital. Even just loving to read, attending art performances, and keeping stimulating social ties can yield enormous benefits throughout life, according to a study on creativity and aging, which was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Seniors between the ages of 63 and 103 who participated in a variety of weekly art programs were found to be in better health, had fewer doctor visits, and used less medication in comparison to a control group that attended no such activities. They also showed better results in mental health tests, and were overall more involved in their communities.

Creativity can find fertile ground anywhere. But it takes a personal decision and commitment to openness to change as well as acceptance of risk, including risk of failure. Conservatism, hunkering down in the hope that things will remain the same, is not helpful and hampers any creative process. That doesn’t mean everything from the past has to be overthrown and redone from scratch. But it can require rethinking of some old traits that may no longer serve us well. Or, what has been overlooked for some time may regain relevance when seen in a different light.

The beauty of aging is that there is room for new perspectives based on hindsight and greater appreciation for the preciousness of time. It is also a most humbling phase in life when we realize how little, if anything, we are able to accomplish beyond the narrow horizon of our short existence. And yet, it is up to each of us how our days, up to the last, continue to unfold.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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That regular exercise is important for good health is old news. From controlling weight and staying in shape, to fending off disease, to aging well, being physically active is a central component of wellbeing. As much as this message is considered to be self-evident, surprisingly, there has never been actual scientific proof that it is true.

For instance, while countless studies have suggested that exercise can be beneficial in many ways, including for slowing the aging process in older adults, it can only be said with certainty that most people who are healthy do in fact exercise – but not that their exercising makes them healthier. Now, a new study tried to show just that.

Unlike other research projects of its kind, this one specifically sought out participants who were not especially fit but adhered to a mostly sedentary lifestyle and even showed signs of age-related physical decline.

“For the first time, we have directly shown that exercise can effectively lessen or prevent the development of physical disability in a population of extremely vulnerable elderly people,” said Dr. Marco Pahor, the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida in Gainesville and lead author of the study report, to the New York Times.

For the study, the researchers recruited 1,635 men and women between the ages of 70 and 89, who were mostly sedentary but still able to walk independently a distance of at least 400 meters (a quarter-mile). Then they split the participants up in two groups, assigning one to a regular exercise regimen, the other to a health education program that did not include exercising.

Over a period of about two and a half years, the exercising group showed 18 percent fewer incidences of temporary physical disability and 28 percent reduced likelihood of long-term to permanent disability compared to their non-exercising counterparts. But still, both groups had about the same number of periodical impairments. Also, more of the exercisers had to be hospitalized at one or more times, perhaps due to underlying medical conditions that were discovered over the course of the study. And some of the participants who underwent health education started exercising on their own account as well, which makes the distinction between the groups less clear.

Still, the findings of the study are valuable. For starters, they show that it is never too late to become physically more active and reap the benefits. Second, they demonstrate that even low-impact exercise like walking can be effective if done regularly. For seniors, in particular, it is important to focus, besides weight control and muscle and bone health, on flexibility and gait – not only to maintain physical fitness but to counteract mental decline as well.

As a number of studies have found, exercise can play a crucial role in the prevention of age-related dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. That in itself should motivate everyone to take a few extra steps…

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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How Dietary Needs Change with Age

May 20th, 2014 at 5:07 pm by timigustafson

Healthy aging entails multiple aspects, among them eating right, exercising regularly, and preventing mental decline. Achieving some of these may be easier than others. No matter how well we do our part, nature has a say in all of them, too.

While the outward signs of aging are usually quite apparent, the inner transformations our bodies go through as we grow older – e.g. slowing metabolism, diminishing muscle mass, thinning organ tissue, decreasing bone density – are less evident. Yet, these changes are very real and deserve close attention. Thankfully, their impact on our overall health and wellbeing can be mitigated with appropriate adjustments in diet and lifestyle.

Meeting altering health needs is not always easy for older adults, though. For example, due to reduced metabolic rates and sedentary behavior, most seniors use up significantly fewer calories than they did in their midlife. At the same time, the risk of malnutrition grows because of a lessening ability to absorb important nutrients, dehydration, lack of appetite, loss of taste, difficulty with chewing, and so forth. So, while reduced food intake is quite normal, it is crucial not to confuse the need for fewer calories with the need for fewer nutrients.

Energy requirements decrease with every decade, explains Dr. Connie Bales, a professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center and associate director of the Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center at Durham VA Medical Center to WebMD. But, while eating less overall, the challenge is to eat more nutrient-rich foods, which, calorie for calorie, pack more of a nutritional punch, she says.

Although maintaining healthy eating habits is recommended at any stage in life, it becomes even more instrumental in later years to prevent diet and lifestyle-related illnesses whose effects only worsen with age, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type-2 diabetes as well as mental decline, for as much and as long as possible.

The fact is that, as we grow older, our body requires the same amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals as it always has, if not more, says Dr. Bales. For instance, after the age of 50, the ability to absorb essential nutrients like vitamin B12 or vitamin D gradually diminishes due to reduced acidity in the stomach, which is needed to break them down from food. The solution is to add to one’s diet food sources that are especially rich in these components.

And it’s not just the digestive system that weakens. Aging skin is less able to convert vitamin D from sunlight, which also affects the absorption of calcium, a necessary nutrient to prevent bone loss. For these reasons and others, older adults are well advised to take daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplements, she says.

The danger of dehydration is another problem that gets worse with age. Older people tend to drink less not because they don’t need as many fluids but because they don’t sense thirst as well as they used to. Regulatory processes are just not as sharp as they used to be in younger years, says Dr. Bales. So, an older person may not feel thirsty, although he or she may already be borderline dehydrated. The solution is to make it a habit of drinking about six 8-ounce glasses of water every day, regardless of thirst sensation.

One of the greatest risks of malnutrition among the elderly stems from lack of access to healthy food sources. It may be too hard to get to a grocery store, especially when driving is no longer possible. It may be that cooking facilities are missing or too cumbersome to operate. It may be loss of appetite, forgetfulness, or lack of motivation due to loneliness or depression. But skipping meals for whatever reason has negative health implications and may backfire in terms of serious nutritional damages, Dr. Bale warns.

The best solution would be not to eat alone but to enjoy the company of family and friends while preparing and eating meals. That way, loved ones can also keep an eye on an older person’s eating regimen. Services like Meals on Wheels and the likes can be useful to fill in some of the gaps. Regrettably, for too many people, aging goes hand in hand with progressive social separation and isolation, which can have far-reaching negative consequences on multiple levels. It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Seven Important Numbers You Need to Know to Protect Your Health” and “Eating Healthy Becomes Even More Important with Age.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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