The U.S. population is aging. The majority of residents are middle-aged or older (older than 45 years), and the ratio of older people to young is increasing.
The fastest growing age group is the older than 85 sector. Since 1950, their numbers have increased sevenfold.
Life expectancy in the U.S. also has risen to 81 years for white women, 76 years for black women, 75 years for white men and 69 years for black men. In 1900, life expectancy was a mere 47 years for most people.
Good nutrition has long been associated with longevity, but the questions still being asked are what role does nutrition play in the aging process, and what role can it play in slowing aging? Aging is an inevitable and natural process, but it can be slowed (within genetic limits; the oldest age it is thought humans could possibly live is 130 years) by healthy lifestyle behaviors and good nutrition throughout life. Good nutrition can also improve our quality of life, especially as we age.
One of the most important outcomes of eating a healthy diet affects us more as we age weight gain. Keeping a healthy weight throughout your adult life will improve your chances of living longer and lower your risks for most types of chronic disease, such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and arthritis. As we age, most people gain weight slowly, maybe 5 pounds per decade, but this creeping weight gain affects our health and quality of life. Two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese, and the older we get, the more we tend to lose bone and muscle and gain body fat. Hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism decrease and become less active with age, so its more important to eat healthy and decrease the amount of calories eaten the older we get.
Calorie needs generally diminish 5 percent per decade, although staying physically active could help lower that percentage. Our basal metabolic rate (how many calories we need to keep our organs and brain functioning) decreases 1 to 2 percent per decade because all of us tend to lose muscle as we age and thyroid hormones diminish. Estimated calorie requirements decrease steadily after age 19. Because of reduced muscle mass, protein requirements decrease as we age, so we need to eat low-calorie sources of high-quality protein, such as lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy and legumes.
Carbohydrates are needed to keep the body from burning protein as fuel, which can make the body toxic (a state called ketosis, which can be deadly). Complex carbs such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes are recommended, staying away from refined carbs such as cakes, cookies, doughnuts, white bread and anything made with refined grains. Limit fat intake to decrease calories, making sure to get enough to utilize the fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients (this is equal to 2 teaspoons per day of fat, which most of us have no problem getting).
Staying healthy as we age starts with healthy eating when were younger. Its never too early (or too late) to start.
Jeanine Justice has 20 years of experience in nutrition. She is currently the coordinator for Healthy Lifestyle La Plata Coalition. Reach her at jeanine@swcommunity foundation.org.