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Holiday checkup on senior nutrition

Thanksgiving is near and families are coming together for the holidays. If you have senior relatives attending your celebration, it may be a good time for some detective work to see if your loved ones are eating properly.

Nutrition is important at any age, but following a healthy diet when you are in your 60s or older is an even more important factor in maintaining good health. Studies show that a good diet in your later years reduces your risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart diseases and certain cancers. Unfortunately, surveys also show that a fourth of those over age 65 still become malnourished.

As people age, their metabolism slows down and their caloric needs decrease. However, even though seniors’ need fewer calories, their need for nutrients, especially protein, B-vitamins and calcium increase. Study after study confirms eating well can make a dramatic difference in the quality of life for older adults.

Good nutrition helps older Americans maintain strong immune systems and control chronic diseases. While seniors need a multi-vitamin pill and calcium supplement, it’s a mistake to think taking a vitamin pill can make up for a poor diet. Some older adults do not get the protein they need to maintain muscle mass, fight infection and recover from an accident or surgery.

Many older people have difficulty eating well for reasons that have little to do with their knowledge of nutrition. For example, losing teeth may prevent a senior from eating a lot of fiber and fruits because he or she can’t chew well. Strokes can affect a person’s ability to swallow and arthritis can make it hard to cook. Some medications can affect a senior’s appetite or alter foods’ taste or smell.

Altered mental health can also impair nutrition. A person suffering from depression is less likely to have a good appetite, and those with dementia often can’t remember to eat regularly. Those who live alone may not eat enough simply because they tire of eating alone.

Dehydration is another condition that can affect seniors’ nutrition and health. As people age they lose their sense of thirst. A loss of liquid can lead to constipation, confusion and an extra strain on kidneys. Fluids are at the very bottom of the food guide pyramid for seniors. They need eight glasses of fluid a day, counting water, decaf coffee and tea and other decaffeinated drinks.

There are several warning signs to indicate a senior is malnourished. The most obvious one is a decrease in weight. The person may seem weak and feel tired. Vitamin deficiencies can show up as dry, scaly skin, mouth and skin sores and a swollen, red tongue. (Unfortunately, many of these symptoms can be attributed to other diseases and it is hard to associate these symptoms with an actual deficiency without running medical tests.)

Ask your aging loved ones about their diet, because it’s never too late to turn things around. If their diet could be improved, talk to their doctor or consult a dietitian.

Sometimes living on a limited income makes it hard to buy enough nutrient-rich foods to meet all their nutritional needs. Seniors who live on fast food or just one meal a day are missing out on a variety of needed nutrients including vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. If this is the problem for your loved one, consider exploring the options for senior meal sites, meals-on-wheels or supplemental nutrition assistance programs in their community.

Marilyn Ranson is a public relations coordinator with NorthBay Healthcare in Fairfield, which is a member of the Solano Coalition for Better Health.

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