Lifestyle and Nutrition Choices for the Elderly

As people get older, metabolism slows and energy needs reduce. However nutritional needs don't decrease but may even increase. This is because there may be reduced absorption of some nutrients. Interactions with medications also affect nutritional needs. Various health problems may also raise nutritional issues.

Older folk need to choose foods that are rich in nutrients, not just 'empty' appetite suppressants. Make food choices 'count'. Food for older people should include essential fats, high-quality protein, fibre-rich wholegrain carbohydrates and essential vitamins and minerals.

Foods high in antioxidants also become more important as people age. Antioxidants help the body to fight the ageing process and assist in destroying free radicals which can cause premature ageing. The important antioxidants are vitamin E (nuts, seeds and oils), Vitamin C (fruit, particularly citrus, and vegetables), beta-carotene (yellow/orange fruits and vegetables), flavoids (fruit, vegetables, red wine, dark chocolate, tea and soy products) and selenium (mainly in nuts).

Heart Disease

Blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to the heart or brain can become narrowed and/or blocked causing cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular diseases include coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and heart failure. Cardiovascular disease kills one Australian every 10 minutes. In 2006, it was estimated that 81,100,000 people in the United States had one or more forms of cardiovascular disease. Heart and circulatory disease is the biggest killer in the UK.

Risk factors include:

  • Family history of heart disease
  • Aged over 40
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait ethnicity (for Australian residents)
  • Being male
  • Having diabetes
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure or high blood fats
  • Having a sedentary lifestyle
  • Being overweight especially around the middle
  • Depression
  • Social isolation and lack of social support
  • Having a poor diet.

While you can't alter your genetics, race, or sex you can still make many changes which will put you less at risk of heart disease.

  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Quit smoking
  • Limit alcohol intake and have two alcohol free days a week
  • Follow a healthy diet.
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Diabetes is Australia's fastest growing chronic disease. In the USA, 8.3% of the population has diabetes. Many are unaware that they have the disease. In the United Kingdom, 3% of the population has diabetes. Worldwide the prevalence of diabetes is doubling every generation.

Type 2 diabetes is sometimes called mature age onset diabetes because it affects many people as they get older. One of the main reasons more and more people are succumbing to diabetes is obesity.

Risk factors:

  • Family history of the disease
  • Age (being over 55)
  • Ethnic background (certain ethnic backgrounds are more liable to be affected by diabetes)
  • A history of heart disease or gestational diabetes (diabetes related to pregnancy)
  • Being overweight
  • Physically inactive
  • Poor diet
  • High blood pressure or high blood fats
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption.


It isn't always possible to prevent contracting a disease. However the onset can often be delayed or the severity lessened by taking sensible precautions.

  • Improve your eating habits. Eat more vegetables and salad, choose low GI carbohydrates, choose lean meat, eat more fish and legumes, go for low fat dairy products, use healthy fats and oils, healthy snacks and drink water.
  • Increase your exercise. This can be in small ways but aim for at least 30 minutes on five days a week. Or aim for 10,000 steps each day.
  • Lose weight if you need to
  • Don't smoke or quit smoking if you do
  • Limit your alcohol intake

Making these changes can reduce the risk of diabetes by at least 60%.


Before the age of 75, one in three Australian men and one in four Australian women, will be directly affected by cancer. It is the leading cause of death in Australia. In the United States, cancer is responsible for one death out of every four. In the United Kingdom, in 2007, 489 cases of cancer are diagnosed per 100,000 people.

Risk factors:

  • Family history of the disease
  • Increasing age
  • Changes in hormone levels throughout life
  • Smoking
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight
  • High alcohol consumption
  • Obesity
  • Poor diet
  • Low physical activity levels


  • Be as lean as possible
  • Have thirty minutes of physical activity most days.
  • Avoid sugary drinks. Limit energy dense foods especially processed foods and those high in added sugar, low in fibre and/or high in fat.
  • Eat more vegetables, fruits wholegrains and pulses.
  • Limit consumption of red meat and avoid processed meats
  • Limit alcoholic drinks to 1 standard drink per day for women and 2 for men
  • Limit salty foods and foods processed with salt.
  • Don't use supplements to protect against cancer.
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Macular Degeneration

Age related macular degeneration is a major cause of vision loss in the elderly.

Risk factors:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Decrease risk by
  • Eat fats in moderation and avoid trans fatty acids and animal fats
  • Eat fish twice a week including oily varieties (eg salmon)
  • Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Ensure you're getting good amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and zinc.
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid smoking.


Osteoporosis is the name given to a condition of brittle bones, resulting in a greater than normal risk of fractures. Elderly people, especially women, are at risk of osteoporosis in later life. Bones become fragile and porous and may break almost spontaneously at the least amount of trauma.

To protect against the disease, there are some steps you can take.

  • Eat a calcium rich diet. This means three serves a day of milk, yoghurt, cheese, calcium-fortified milks of any composition, canned salmon and/or sardines, tofu, green leafy vegetables, almonds and dried figs.
  • To maximise the absorption of calcium, limit sodium (salt) intake and avoid excess animal protein, caffeine and carbonated cola drinks.
  • Get your full share of vitamin D by spending at least 15 minutes out of doors each day. Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones but absorption can become less effective in some people as they age.
  • Exercise regularly. Both cardiovascular and resistance exercise is good for bone health. Readings of older women have been proven to improve with regular light weight and resistance training.

It is interesting that the risk factors for some of the diseases are similar. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, limited physical activity and obesity can contribute to a range of health issues. Similarly, the recommendations to improve your chances of avoiding major health issues are also repetitive. Don't smoke, limit alcohol intake, maintain a healthy weight, get regular exercise and eat healthily are so important throughout life and even more so as a person begins to age.