The number of senior citizens in the United States continues to grow each year. In the early 1900s approximately 4 percent of the population was over the age of 65. Currently, the figure hovers around 12 percent of the population and, if projections are correct, those over 65 will comprise approximately 20 percent of the population by the year 2020.
These increasing numbers of elderly individuals have an impact on the community, from medical research to Social Security and nutrition to life insurance policies. The greatest impact we can have on our health in the future is providing the best nutrition possible to our ever aging bodies. We are not only growing older, but lifestyles are changing as well. People expect to enjoy life well into their retirement years. According to current estimates, of all Americans turning 65 in the year 1990 approximately half will spend about a year at a chronic care institution.
Nutrition is most important to those individuals as well. As an example, a chronic vitamin deficiency in the elderly of vitamin D is of particular concern to those in a nursing home or hospital because of poor diet intake of vitamins and lack of exposure to the sun. A lack of vitamin D severely restricts the immune system from protecting the body against bacteria and viruses.
Trends in poor nutrition of the elderly has prompted a considerable amount of research into the physiology of aging bodies. This research will help to support recommendations and treatment protocols for an ever-growing aging population and help to decrease the risk of illness that we suffer.
Our bodies can undergo a considerable amount of change as we age and these changes influence the requirements that we have for nutrients. Body composition will change which changes the requirements for calories; the skin will influence requirements for vitamin D and changes in the intestinal tract can influence requirements for other vitamins when they are not absorbed as well as they were when we were younger, such as vitamin B12.
There is some research which suggests that diet and nutrition can also be used to treat conditions such as cataracts of the eye or retinal degeneration that can lead to blindness. We do know that nutrition is very important in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, stroke, osteoporosis, a declining immune function and especially cancer.
One of the most dramatic physiological changes that happen as we age is the change in the composition of lean muscle mass. Muscle mass is achieved easiest in our 20s and 30s and can be maintained into our senior years if we continue to exercise at the level at which we obtained the lean muscle mass in our 30s. However, as we age it becomes harder to become lean and attain a high level of cardiovascular fitness unless we maintain it from an earlier age.
While it may be difficult to attain high levels of fitness, current research also shows us that even at an advanced age of 90 years appropriate forms of physical exercise can reverse years of changes and increase muscle strength. This will increase the energy requirements of the body, improve the appetite, increase bone mass and improved sleep habits. (1)
As we age there is a decrease in the production of stomach acid which is important to absorb dietary vitamin B12, folic acid and iron. As a result of these changes are higher incidence of vitamin B12 deficiency will occur in older people and can be important in blood formation, neurological function than cardiovascular function. A lack of vitamin B12 can mimic dementia and Alzheimer’s disease but is reversed with the treatment of vitamin B12.
Another condition which the elderly face is sarcopenia, or the wasting away of muscle. Research shows us that, despite difficulty absorbing proteins, muscle loss is a result of a loss of interest in exercise as a major contributing factor. Exercise programs are used to ease depression, generally lifts mood and help slow the march of degenerative diseases. By improving an exercise program the elderly also gain the added benefit of having a much improved appetite.
(1) University of Texas Medical Branch: Muscle Mass in Elderly Boosted by Combining Resistance Exercise and Blood Flow REstriction
(2) Journal of Applied Physiology: Aging, Exercise and Muscle Protein Metabolism