Aging brings a slew of conditions. Growing old can cause gradual degeneration in the different organ systems. Studies show a higher coronary disease incidence in those beyond 65 years of age and the form of hypertension commonly seen in the elderly poses an increased risk of heart attack. The prevalence of type 2 diabetes increases with age. Mental illness like Alzheimer’s disease have a striking age-related increase, with the largest number of affected individuals in the 75-85 year age group. Other conditions like osteoarthritis, poor reflexes, cardiac problems, neurologic diseases, impaired vision and generally poor health are also linked with old age. Unfortunately, such conditions can lead to falls and accidents, which account for about half the deaths due to injury in the elderly.
Why does this happen with age?
Called immunosenescence (from the combine words of immune and senescence) this age-related decline in the immune function may be traced to the thymus, which plays a vital role in mediating both cellular and humoral immunity of the body. The thymus is an organ of the immune system where T-cellsare produced. These T-cells are the ones that kill intruders and “remember” past infections- mature. The thymus shrinks to less than a fifth of its size by middle age and the aged T-cells no longer respond to infection-causing agents as effectively as they did before. Thus, immunosenescence becomes a factor for more incidents of debilitating, sometimes fatal infections such as pneumonia in the older population.
What to do to avoid health decline associated with age?
The imminent problems of advancing years can be avoided by making sure that they take their medications for maintenance regularly and by closely monitoring their health. And just like with everyone else, nutrition plays a vital part.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the U.S says that the practice of good nutrition for older adults is no longer limited to those who are sick, weak and malnourished. Access to wholesome, nutritious food is important to ensure healthy aging. Studies have shown that nutritional intervention may be an effective approach in reversing immune impairment in the elderly and even hasten their recovery from diseases.
To avoid undernourishment that may take its toll on our elderly loved ones, we must check their plates before we serve them. We must ensure that they contain the following:
- Balanced protein, carbohydrates and small amounts of fats will provide energy and strength they need for recovery from chronic and acute ailments that plague older people.
- Prebiotics will help with normal gut function and better nutrient absorption. Inulin found in bananas, onions, garlic and yacon, is an important soluble dietary fiber that stimulates growth of good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.
- Omega 3 and 6 found in fish and vegetable oils are important for heart heath. These essential fatty acids do not only prevent cardiovascular disease, but also curb arthritis symptoms and incidence of depression , which are common problems that the elders face.
- Vitamins and minerals for an optimal nutritional status. Food rich in vitamin A, C and E have important antioxidants to fight free radicals and increase immune function. Deficiencies in zinc and selenium is common in those with advanced age, and is associated with chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer.
- Calcium and Vitamin D
The need for calcium and vitamin D increases as people age to preserve bone health. One added benefit of calcium is that it helps to lower blood pressure. Adults over the age of 50 need at least 1200 milligrams per day of the nutrient – equal to about four cups of milk per day. Many people find it challenging to consume this much calcium per day by eating and drinking, so check with your elders’s doctor to see if he or she should take a calcium supplement.
- Limit sodium content
Most elders have hypertension or high blood pressure. One of the most important things caregivers can do to help reduce an elder’s hypertension is to prepare foods with low sodium. Surprisingly, table salt accounts for only a small percent of sodium content in our everyday food. Avoid giving your elders frozen, processed or restaurant food, as these are extremely high in sodium. The foods with the lowest sodium content are fruits and vegetables, so try and incorporate them as much as possible in their diet.
Pharmaceutical companies have introduced oral nutritional supplementation which is very helpful if diet cannot provide adequate nutrition. These supplementations can fill the health gaps by providing caloric and protein requirements, maintaining macronutrients and micronutrients in the right balance thereby preventing nutritional deficiencies.
Better nutrition for the elderly means a stronger immune system, better healing, improved functional status and an enhanced quality of life. After all, as everyone says, age is just a number.