Healthy Ageing

Published 02 September 2019

By Harriet Smith

Getting older is an inevitable part of life, but it’s never too late for someone to take control of their health and make simple dietary and lifestyle changes. To coincide with Healthy Ageing month, we have written six top tips for optimising health and wellbeing in older age.

1. Lead an Active Lifestyle

According to the NHS website, older adults (65 years +) spend an average of 10 hours sitting or lying down per day. High levels of inactivity are linked with increased risk of many adverse health conditions and early death (1). The good news is there’s strong evidence to suggest that exercising regularly lowers a person’s risk of diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and dementia (2). Additionally, leading an active lifestyle can help to increase bone mass and reduce risk of falls in older people, helping them to maintain their independence (3).

The UK government recommends that older adults participate in 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week—this equates to around 30 minutes of exercise five days per week. However, participating in any amount of physical activity will have some health benefits. It’s also recommended that older adults participate in muscle strengthening exercises twice per week; this could include using light weights or weight-bearing exercises such as walking or aerobics (4).

Encourage older adults to start small and build up gradually—the recommended 30 minutes of exercise per day can be split into three ten minute chunks i.e. 10 minutes of gardening and a 20 minute stroll into town. It doesn’t matter which exercise they choose, as long as it’s something which they enjoy.

Older people who lead a sedentary lifestyle or are recovering from an illness or hospital admission should seek advice from a doctor before beginning a new exercise regimen.

2. Get Enough Protein

As we get older, we lose muscle mass along with strength and physical endurance. To sustain muscle function and strength into older age, it’s recommended that older people (who are otherwise healthy) consume slightly more protein than the general adult population (5).

Specifically, healthy older people (65 years +) should consume 1.0-1.2 g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day (5). For example, someone who weighs 60kg should aim to eat 60-72g protein/day.

Foods which are rich in protein include: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, seeds and nuts, beans and legumes and soy products such as tofu.

Here is a list of the protein content in some commonly consumed foods:

  • Small chicken breast (54g protein)
  • 125g Greek Full-fat yoghurt (13g protein)
  • 1 tbsp peanut butter (4g protein)
  • 100g salmon (20g protein)
  • 200mls semi-skimmed milk (7g protein)
  • 2 eggs (12 g protein)
  • ½ tin baked beans (10g protein)
  • 100g tofu (8g protein)

Older people who have acute or chronic illness may have higher protein requirements. Individuals who struggle to get enough protein from their diet alone may require dietary support from a Registered Dietitian and/or oral nutritional supplements to meet their nutrition and hydration needs.

3. Stay Hydrated

Staying hydrated is important as it helps to keep the urinary tract and kidneys healthy. It also helps to prevent pressure sores, falls and delirium (6).

The best way to check hydration status at home is to monitor the colour of urine. Encourage older individuals to aim for a pale, straw yellow colour. The darker it is, the more dehydrated a person is likely to be, suggesting they need to drink more.

Other signs of dehydration include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Decreased urine output
  • Lightheadedness
  • Weakness

To avoid reaching the point of dehydration, encourage older people to consume fluids regularly throughout the day, aiming for at least 6-8 glasses of fluid per day (more in hot weather). You can estimate fluid requirements for people aged 60 and over by multiplying their body weight in kilos by 30 (7). For example, someone who weighs 60kg needs to drink at least 1,800mls of fluid per day.

Encourage older people to meet their fluid requirements by consuming water, squash or cordials, fruit juice or smoothies, soups, jellies, yoghurts, milk, or tea, coffee and herbal teas.

4. Prioritise Companionship

It’s estimated that over 3.6 million older people live alone in the UK (8), whilst 1.1 million older people are reported to be chronically lonely (9).

Loneliness is a significant predictor of malnutrition and therefore it’s important to address it early on (10). Conversely, social support and companionship are known determinants for eating well in older age (11, 12).

Whether it’s encouraging an older person to get a friend round for a coffee or arranging for them to attend a local community centre for a shared lunch, the benefits of social interaction shouldn’t be under-estimated.

If you’d like more information about how to access a local befriending scheme for older people, please click here.

5. Optimise Bone Health

As we get older, our bone mass decreases (13). Poor bone health can result in conditions like osteoporosis, rickets and increased risk of falls (14).

Eating a bone-healthy diet and participating in regular exercise is essential for slowing the rate of bone thinning and preserving bone function (13).

In addition to high protein requirements, it’s important that older people consume enough vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D are common in the UK, especially amongst older people (15). The UK government recommends that all adults should consume a 10 micrograms supplement of vitamin D daily, especially during the winter months (15).

Other important nutrients for bone health include calcium, phosphorus, vitamin K and fluoride; which can be obtained through eating a healthy and balanced diet. For more information about dietary sources of calcium, click here.

People with medical conditions such as osteoporosis, osteopenia or coeliac disease should speak to their doctor or dietitian about getting enough calcium and vitamin D as they may have higher requirements.

6. Encourage Older People to Talk About Feelings

As we get older, we may experience significant life events such as retirement, bereavement or illness. These can make us more vulnerable to mental health problems.

It’s estimated that 40% of older people (65+) have a mental health problem, rising to 50% in general hospital settings and 60% in care homes (16). Although common, developing a mental health problem is not a normal part of ageing.

Having a mental health problem such as depression is a powerful risk factor for developing malnutrition in older people who live in the community (17).

Old people experiencing persistent low mood and negative feelings should be encouraged to speak with someone who they trust such as their GP, family or a mental health helpline such as the Samaritans or Mind. They can help them to access support and treatment.

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