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Age-related perceptual and physical changes affect nutritional status.
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As people get older -- especially beyond age 65 -- changes occur that affect the way food is perceived, digested, metabolized and processed. These changes typically alter eating habits and reduce nutrient availability and absorption, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies and various health problems. Eating a well-balanced diet rich in nutrients is important as you age, but so is understanding common age-related changes.
Elderly people have a higher risk of malnutrition -- not getting enough calories, protein, vitamins and minerals -- possibly as high as 35 percent in Americans 65 years and older, according to an article published in вЂњClinical Interventions in Aging.вЂќ Malnutrition is strongly associated with reduced cognitive capacity in the elderly. For example, people with age-related senility often forget about mealtimes, how to grocery shop and how to prepare food. In turn, deficiency of certain nutrients -- particularly vitamins B-6, B-9 and B-12 -- are associated with further cognitive impairment. Reduced sense of smell and taste as people age may also negatively affect eating habits due to food becoming less appealing.
There are a number of changes that occur in the stomach which negatively affect digestion and reduce the absorption of nutrients. For example, reduced stomach acid production or secretion, which compromises digestion and reduces the absorption of vitamin B-12 and iron, is relatively common in the elderly. B-12 deficiency is linked to cognitive impairment, whereas not enough iron leads to anemia -- symptoms of which are severe fatigue and loss of appetite. Further, stomach emptying is slower in older people, which tends to reduce the desire to eat more frequently. Movement of food in the intestines -- called peristalsis -- is also slower in the elderly and is a common cause of constipation and bloating. Drinking plenty of water and eating more fiber can help counteract constipation.
As people age, they often lose muscle mass due to reduced activity levels, illnesses and hormonal changes. A significant result of reduced lean body mass is a decrease in basal energy metabolism -- the ability to burn calories from food -- according to Colorado State University. In fact, metabolic rates decline proportionately with the decline in muscle tissue. The result of lower metabolism is weight gain in the form of fat, which can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Less muscle mass also reduces the amount of water the body can hold, as approximately 72 percent of total body water is held within muscle tissue.
Less Saliva and Dentition Problems
According to Beth Culross, a registered nurse and gerontology specialist, reduced saliva production -- called xerostomia -- is also common among the elderly. Saliva contains a variety of enzymes that trigger the initial chemical breakdown of nutrients such as starch and fat. Loss of teeth and poorly fitting dentures are common in the elderly as well and tend to reduce the ability to chew food and mechanically break it down. Teeth problems may also be a significant factor in food choice, food preparation and eating patterns - such as eating less chewy and crunchy foods.
Adapting to Dietary Changes
Changing your diet can be tough, so don't hesitate to ask a professional for help. A pro can help you determine your calorie needs and offer tips for upping your B-12 levels -- like how to include easy-to-digest meats, eggs and dairy into your daily meal plans. She can also monitor your nutritional status, so you can address deficiencies early, before they have a profound impact on your health.