Getting older doesn’t mean life has to be all downhill! There are nutritional habits you can build to optimise the ageing process, not just for a longer life, but a healthier one too. Adapted from an article by Louise Wates, published in print in Spring 2020.

As we live longer, the importance of a healthy lifestyle cannot be underestimated for ageing well.

Research has shown that by the age of 50, not smoking, being a healthy weight and exercising regularly is associated with better health as we age.

More specifically, these lifestyle changes could mean the difference of an extra 7.6 years for men – and 10 for women – free from major diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

When it comes to living to a grand old age, several so-called ‘Blue Zones’ have been identified across the world with more centenarians than anywhere else in the world; many of whom live active lives and are in possession of their metaphorical marbles.

People in these Blue Zone communities — from Seventh Day Adventists in the USA to the people of Okinawa, Japan — remain active, live with a sense of community and eat diets rich in vegetables. Obesity is rare.

The good news is that it’s never too late to start living well – even if the candles on your birthday cake set off the smoke alarm.

Registered nutritional therapist Nicola Hodges says: “It’s important to recognise how much of our health is within our control and is our responsibility, and even if we are older the body still has a natural ability to heal with the right self-care.”

1. Optimise your digestion

However, there are potential challenges. For one thing, the need for specific nutrients can be high while it may become trickier to eat and digest a good quality diet.

It’s common for us to lose our appetites as we age. Also, reduction in stomach acid slows down digestion, whilst illness or medication can decrease nutrient absorption.

But Hodges says that these problems are “surmountable”, adding: “We can support our digestion with some simple and easy changes to our eating habits.”

For example, she suggests eating foods that are harder to digest earlier in the day when our stomach acid is more potent.

Hodges identifies several nutrients that may be less well absorbed as we get older.

“Some of the ones to look out for are vitamin B12, folate, calcium and iron,” she says. “Also, fat and protein may not be digested as well as it used to be, especially when consumed in larger amounts.

“Eating smaller, nutrient-dense regular meals may be a better approach to maintaining healthier, more comfortable digestion.”

2. Go Mediterranean

A five-country European study has found that one year following a Mediterranean diet boosted the types of gut bacteria that are linked to ‘healthy’ ageing, and reduced those associated with harmful inflammation in older people.

Investigating the effects of a Mediterranean diet on age-related deterioration, researchers analysed the gut microbiomes of 612 elderly people eating either a Mediterranean diet or their usual diet.

After 12 months, they found that the guts of the Mediterranean-diet group benefitted, with a better diversity of gut bacteria than the other group, as well as an increase in types of bacteria associated with indicators of reduced frailty and improved brain function.

There was also reduced production of potentially harmful inflammatory chemicals.

These changes were reportedly driven by an increase in dietary fibre and associated vitamins and minerals (C, B6, B9, copper, potassium, iron, manganese, and magnesium).

3. Don't be afraid of healthy fat

In another study, scientists at the University of Minnesota Medical School, USA, identified olive oil — ubiquitous to the Mediterranean diet — as an ingredient of interest.

Lead researcher Professor Doug Mashek said that lab studies suggested that it was the fat in olive oil that activated “a certain pathway in cells known to increase lifespan and prevent ageing-related diseases”.

He said: “This fat is known to be protective against heart disease and many other ageing-related diseases, so by identifying this pathway, it provides a new way of thinking about how consuming olive oil and the Mediterranean diet is actually linked to positive health benefits.”

4. Protect your bone health

Inflammation can lead to joint swelling, tenderness and stiffness; but dietary interventions can help.

One study carried out among Spanish women found that increased omega-3 (EPA and DHA) consumption from marine sources helped to reduce chronic, low-grade inflammation associated with osteoporosis.

Increased dietary EPA and DHA was associated with improved bone mineral density at the hips and lumbar spine.

This, researchers said, was due to the slowing of bone resorption, positively impacting calcium levels and decreasing inflammation.

For calcium – fundamental to good bone health – food sources include natural live yoghurt (also good for gut bacteria); leafy greens such as kale, pak choi and collard greens; fortified plant milks; fish with soft bones such as sardines; and some soya products including tofu.

Calcium can be supplemented, but different forms are available and supplements may affect the absorption of other nutrients; for example, iron, zinc and magnesium.

Also important for bone health are vitamins D and K2 — and weight-bearing exercise.

5. Build muscle for independence

Sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) and loss of core strength are the most common reasons for falls among the elderly.

However, that lack of strength can start in middle age – or even younger when triggered by disease.

In 2016, it was estimated that 20% of Europe’s elderly suffered from sarcopenia — a figure that is anticipated to rise by 63% by 2045.

Muscle-loss may not always be obvious because people may gain fat as they lose muscle, so their overall weight may remain the same.

To combat sarcopenia, adequate protein and weight-bearing exercises are recommended.

6. Stay positive

Normal ageing is inevitable, says Hodges, and “we all need to go of something”.

But “we need to change our mindset and stop accepting that ill health is inevitable and to be expected.”

“Just as we understand that childhood is a very important time for good nutrition, we need to acknowledge that older age is too.

“It’s okay to not look like we did when we were younger, and it’s okay to not feel like running races — however it’s a good idea to [keep] a close eye on nutrition and appropriate physical activity.”

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