As we age, our body’s nutritional requirements change. One of our goals in caring for elderly residents is ensuring a higher quality of life by minimizing potential health problems before they arise. Though the attending dietician is responsible for creating a dietary plan for each individual, it is still important for others involved in the direct care of our residents to be cognizant of the basic nutritional requirements that increase with aging.
Assisted Living Education discusses how the nutritional requirements of our body change as we age.
The aging process diminishes our bodies’ ability to absorb various nutrients. The body secretes less hydrochloric acid which reduces our ability to break down food and acquire the same amount of nutrients that a younger body can. Additionally, hormonal changes may result in more nutrients, such as calcium, being excreted through the kidneys. Because of these changes, vitamin deficiencies can be common among residents. Side effects of nutritional deficiencies include cognitive impairment, anemia, muscle loss, heightened susceptibility to infections, insomnia, and a weakening of the immune system.
To prevent these problems and alleviate others, it’s especially important that the senior diet is rich in the following nutrients.
Calcium is one of the primary nutrients our bodies require in increasing amounts as we age. Unfortunately, some individuals may become lactose intolerant as a natural part of the aging process. As dairy products become harder to digest, your residents may eat less of them. It’s generally recommended that adults over the age of 50 increase their daily calcium intake from 1000 mg to 1200 mg. Incorporating non-dairy foods rich in calcium is one way to supplement this nutrient. Broccoli, kale, edamame, oranges, salmon, white beans, tofu, and almonds are all great sources.
Because calcium is such a vital nutrient to bone and overall body health, Vitamin D intake is also important as it helps our bodies absorb calcium. Conditions such as osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis are common results of Vitamin D or calcium deficiencies. Egg yolks, cheese, mushrooms and fatty fish such as salmon or tuna are good sources of naturally-occurring vitamin D. Additionally, many foods these days are fortified with it Vitamin D: cereals, milk, some yogurts, and juices. For residents up to age 70, a daily intake of 15 mcg is recommended. An increase to 20 mcg is recommended for individuals over 70.
Iron is a required nutrient for our body to create hemoglobin, the protein cells that carry oxygen through your blood. The average woman over age 50 should consume 50 mg of iron a day whereas the average man only needs 10 mg. Unfortunately, most foods contain very little iron. The best source is red meat, but some residents might have dietary restrictions limiting their red meat intake due to cholesterol and high blood pressure concerns. Incorporating poultry and fish are good substitutes for red meat. Fish such as halibut, salmon, and tuna are all excellent sources of iron. Non-meat options include lima beans, red kidney beans, chickpeas, apricots, broccoli, spinach, and baked potatoes. Brown rice, enriched bread and cereals, or those made with whole grains are good options as well.
To improve our body’s ability to absorb iron, it’s important to limit the amount of caffeine your residents consume.
Constipation and other intestinal problems are more common in the elderly due to reduced intestinal contractions; this is often caused by inactive lifestyles and diets low in fiber. A diet high in fiber stimulates intestinal motility and prevents constipation. Some studies also suggest that dietary fiber can lower cholesterol levels and regulate blood-glucose levels. It is recommended that total fiber intake for adults older than 50 should be at least 30 grams per day for men and 21 grams for women. Insoluble fiber absorbs water, so make sure residents stay hydrated to avoid compounding existing intestinal problems. Insoluble and soluble fiber can be found in most whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Multi-grain bread, spinach, brown rice, celery, broccoli, apples, carrots, pears, zucchini, baked potatoes (with the skin), chickpeas, almonds, pecans, lentils, beans, and even popcorn are great sources of dietary fiber.
A proper supply of magnesium is important for a wide range of reasons. Magnesium plays a vital role in good heart health, bone density, and keeping immune systems top notch. In fact, magnesium is a critical component of over 300 physiological functions. As we age, our body’s ability to absorb this all-important nutrient decreases. In general, seniors tend to consume less of it as their ability to cook and prepare their own foods decreases. Much of the essential nutrients have already been stripped away if the food is consumed in processed form. A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans, and seeds can help maintain adequate magnesium levels. On average, men over the age of 50 are advised to consume 420 mg of magnesium a day, and women are advised to consume 320 mg.
Between 10%-15% of seniors over the age of 60 have some degree of B12 deficiency. Because of its vital function in maintaining the health of our blood cells and nervous system, the first sign of a Vitamin B12 deficiency is fatigue and muscle weakness. If a resident appears to be more tired than usual in the afternoon or seems weaker than normal, they might need a supplement to their diet such as B12. Other signs can include diarrhea, depression, mouth sourness, and tingling in the hands and feet. The recommended intake for individuals over the age of 50 is 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 per day. B12 is a vitamin found naturally in animal products and is especially high in beef liver, mackerel, sardines, salmon, red meat and dairy products. Vegan and vegetarian residents may require B12 supplements or other foods fortified with B12.
Consult the Team First
Any kind of change to a resident’s individual health care plan should receive the approval of the attending physician, dietician, and/or the rest of the team prior to implementation. However, any observations in behavioral or physical changes are crucial and should be noted to help the entire team make informed decisions about the resident’s overall health care plan.
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