The life span of the average American has increased dramatically. The latest Census data reports that 35 million persons in the United States are over the age of 65 and that number is expected to grow to one in five persons over 65 by 2010. Unfortunately, knowledge about the nutritional requirements to maintain good health and quality of life for this growing population is somewhat limited. The government RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) is the amount of vitamins, minerals and proteins believed to be needed by most people each day to not develop a disease from deficiency. It is largely considered the "standard." Unfortunately, these amounts were based on studies using healthy individuals below the age of 50 making the current RDA inappropriate for those over 50. According to recent surveys, as many as 40 percent of the nations elderly are afflicted with nutritional deficiencies. Most experts agree that nutrition is a factor in the aging process.
Ranjit Kumar Chandra, M.D. of Memorial University of Newfoundland conducted a yearlong study of 86 persons over the age of 65. His findings, as published in the September 2001 issue of Nutrition, show that a supplement with moderate amounts of 18 vitamins, minerals and trace elements improves the short-term memory and overall cognitive abilities of seniors, and greatly strengthens their immune systems. Dr. Chandra also suggests that supplements may prevent serious neurological damage and disorders such as Alzheimer's disease. A separate study led by Hui-Zin Wang, M.D. at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and published in the May 2001 issue of Neurology also links poor nutrition to Alzheimer's disease. This study followed 370 elderly adults aged 75 and over for three years, and found that seniors with low blood levels of folate and vitamin B12 have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
Why Seniors Need Supplements Some of the factors that contribute to the malnourishment of the aging population are:
· Primary consumption of processed and refined foods with a decrease in fresh foods. Convenience is a priority for many seniors and as there is also a gradual loss of taste with age, especially salty and sweet, seniors tend to choose the more highly processed and refined foods that are high in salt and sugar yet low in nutritional content.
· Compromised digestion. First, older people produce less saliva and are often plagued by bad dentures creating a poor start to the digestive process. Second, an estimated 30% of seniors lose their ability to make adequate stomach acid. This not only slows down the whole process of digestion with uncomfortable symptoms, it also means that vitamins such as B12 and folic acid cannot be properly absorbed. Deficiencies in these nutrients, as well as vitamin B6, can cause neurological changes such as decline in alertness, loss of memory and numbness of extremities. Then there is the general slowing of transit time due to enzyme activity that can result in hard stools and constipation.
· Decreased appetite. As we age our metabolism slows and our bodies require fewer calories so our appetites naturally decrease.
· Medication Many types of medication can contribute to the depletion of particular nutrients. When medication is taken on a regular basis this nutrient depletion can result in nutrient deficiencies and imbalances. As most nutrients are synergistic (work with and affect each other) the depletion of a nutrient will always have a compound effect on one's overall nutritional status.
· Illness Due to particular diseases, such as heart disease or osteoporosis, as we age we need less of some minerals (such as sodium to lower blood pressure) and more of others (such as calcium and vitamin D for bone mass).
· Depression and loneliness Retirement and the loss of loved ones can have great impact on one's life leading a disinterest in eating. Many seniors do not have the economical means, knowledge or willingness to ensure the most nutritious choices in food selection and meal preparation.
As a result of the above, the nutrition of older persons is often caught in a three-way bind: 1. Decreased nutritional intake. 2. Decreased absorption. 3. An increased need that is caused by the age related decline of the body's systems. This negative feedback loop can often result in chronic disease conditions associated with age such as osteoporosis and heart disease. Once this loop is in motion the use of a quality vitamin and mineral supplement can significantly contribute to reversing this loop and get the body back on the track of good health.
A study published in the August 2001 issue of Nutrition by Teresa A. Marshall, M.D. and colleagues at the University of Iowa found that nutritional deficiencies greatly increase with age, and that supplement use would eliminate these deficiencies in the elderly. Dr. Marshall studied 420 persons over the age of 78 and found 80% of those seniors consumed inadequate amounts of four or more nutrients.
"Older adults need to learn about the contribution that dietary supplements can make to promoting health and reducing the risk for chronic diseases," said Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., Professor of Nutrition and Chief of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
What to do? The "experts" have established minimum daily requirements for individuals under 50 to prevent illness. But, there is much controversy higher levels of nutrients as supplements will promote better health. However, most do agree that the elderly and sick, whose appetites are depressed and compromised, or take medication that can interfere with nutrition, may be deficient in certain vitamins and minerals without taking a supplement. Yet the "experts" offer no recommendations as these cases, although common, are all very individual. They will however agree that a vitamin and mineral supplement can offer an "insurance policy." So, unfortunately, it really is up to the individual and those who care for the elderly to determine what to do to ensure adequate if not optimum nutrition in later life. The evidence supporting the need for supplementation continues to grow.
A few key factors to keep in mind when researching a new supplement regime:
1. Always check with your doctor. Some medications and particular vitamins and minerals should not be taken together as they might decrease or increase the action of the medication. 2. Digestibility. If you have to take 10 tablets, or one for that matter, is your body going to be able to breakdown that hard outer shell in order for the nutrients to be absorbed by your body? A powder or liquid vitamin with no added sweeteners or fillers is always preferable to tablets. 3. Quality and potency. Does the supplement have enough of the nutrients you need in balanced amounts (remember synergy) to be beneficial? 4. Feel the difference. Do you actually feel a difference when taking the supplement? More energy, better sleep, better concentration. If not, then you are probably not digesting and absorbing the nutrients and/or the dosages may be too low.
In most cases, taking a multivitamin and mineral will not only act as an "insurance policy" but it will also improve the quality of life today.
By Julie Tomlinson
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