Aging is a universal phenomenon, affecting every living being including humans. With advancement in medical science, greater awareness regarding health, the average life span of individuals has increased, not only in the developed western world but also in developing nations.
Elderly present as a special group in the society with needs different from a growing or grown up adults. Apart from their personal care and medical needs, their nutrition also forms a very important need, which requires special attention. As one ages, the body has special needs regarding nutrition. Inability to eat properly due to sickness, side effects of medicines being taken regularly, ill fitting dentures or loss of teeth, depression senile dementia, e.t.c. are other factors which affect nutrition of the person.
Calcium and vitamin D. are 2 important nutrients, demand of which is increased in old age to keep bones healthy and strong. If possible, one should take about 2-4 servings of low fat milk or yoghurt fortified with vitamin D, every day. Dark greeny leafy vegetables, fortified cereals or fresh fruit juices are other choices. Fish with soft bones is another alternative. If a senior citizen takes calcium supplements, it should be the one combined with vitamin D.
Many elderly fail to get sufficient vitamin B12, due to which they suffer from peripheral neuropathy and chronic anemia. Fortified lean meat, soya products, cheese, some sea food are dietary sources of vitamin B12. If needed, one can take supplements of vitamin B12.
Adequate amount of fiber in the diet prevents constipation and aids in digestion. It is also important in preventing obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart problems. Hence the diet should include whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. Anti oxidants prevent degeneration of cells. Nuts, vegetables like carrots, onion, citrus fruits, are rich sources of anti oxidants and hence should be part of the diet.
Increasing the intake of potassium and reducing salt, lowers the risk of developing high blood pressure and its complications. Fruits, fresh vegetables, fat free milk and yoghurt, help in this regard. One should avoid adding table salt on the top of cooked foods, as that extra salt is harmful.
Deep fried foods, canned or ready to eat foods like chips, e.t.c. should be avoided, as they are high in saturated fats. Eggs particularly the egg yolk is very high in cholesterol, hence should be avoided. Polyunsaturated fats and omega acids, lower the risk of heart attacks by lowering bad lipids and elevating the level of good lipids in the body. They also improve brain function, help in skin hair and bone health. Foods like olive oil, cold fish, natural pea nut butter, almonds, avocados, e.t.c. are natural sources of polyunsaturated fats, hence should be included in diet. The body needs calories for getting energy, which should be obtained from healthy fats and carbohydrates, depending on the body weight.
Proteins are useful for the body, for building up immunity, building up tissues and cells, for healthy hair and partly for providing energy. Experts claim that elderly citizens need more proteins than younger people. Low fat milk products, nuts, beans, low fat healthy meat products, are dietary sources of proteins. However proteins should not be taken in conditions like kidney failure. In this, the body is unable to dispose off the by products of proteins, due to which their toxic levels builds up in the body.
If the senior citizen has difficulty in chewing, he/she should be provided with small frequent meals with food prepared in soft or semiliquid form. Those who are debilitated can be given foods in liquid quantity, in quantity as recommended by a dietitian.
With proper nutrition an elderly person can have a normal, healthy life.
Dr Rachna Pande,
Specialist, internal medicine