NUTRITION FOR LIFELONG WELLNESS
Do you worry about becoming elderly? Ageing happens. Unless we die prematurely (and who wants to do that?) we are all going to grow old. For a lot of us, life could become quite miserable as our bodies or our minds start to fail.
Throughout history, men and women have been fantasizing about a fountain of eternal youth, or some magic elixir that will keep them young forever. Sadly, we’re not likely to find it. Real life doesn’t work that way.
In fact, we have hardly reached our prime before the downward slope of becoming ‘elderly’ begins. For many of us it is quite a shock to be called elderly – it usually happens while we still feel quite young!
The question is not whether we are going to slide down it – of course we are – but how fast? And are we going to arrive at the bottom in a crumpled heap, or with a bit of vim and vooma still left in us?
The good news is that although we may not find the fountain of youth and we can’t stop the life cycle, we can make choices that help keep us active and alert deep into old age. Being elderly does not necessarily mean becoming decrepit.
And it is a matter of making choices. The magic elixir may not exist, but we can make decisions about how we live, and especially about how we nourish ourselves, that can greatly improve our resistance to the ageing process.
The statistics show that 70% of longevity is related to lifestyle choices and only 30% is determined by our genetics.
That puts things well within our control.
By making wise choices early in life (and it’s never too late to start) we can become elderly in terms of our chronological age, but we can continue to maintain our physical and mental vigour well into old age.
There are three areas that we have to attend to:
* Stress reduction
We’ll return to these in a moment, but first a bit of technical stuff.
“Elderly” comes sooner than you think
Most of us would be quite miffed to be called “middle aged” until we are at least 50-something, or “elderly” before we are well into our retirement, but take a look at this…
According to the clinicians, a typical lifespan has four phases:
Birth to about 25: We are developing and growing, and usually in vibrant good health.
25 to 35: Technically the ageing process has started, but without any visible warning signs (it’s called the “sub-clinical phase”). Free radical damage within the cells has begun, but laboratory tests would give results within the normal range.
35 to 45: This is the “transitional phase" where some people start to show some of the symptoms of age-related diseases. Many people will still not have outward manifestations of these diseases, but …
* Significant mutational changes will already be entrenched which may eventually lead to cancers and other degenerative diseases.
* Symptoms such as glucose intolerance (diabetes), hypertension, decreasing muscle strength, thinning skin and digestive imbalances will start to appear.
* Laboratory tests might start to give borderline results.
From 45 onwards we are into the “clinical phase” of aging where clinically active degenerative disease starts to become the norm and we start heading towards being labelled elderly.
* Symptoms that are commonly accepted as the natural consequence of aging start to appear, for example decreased energy, memory loss, hair loss, wrinkles.
* Laboratory tests start to give results that are considered to be abnormal.
* Clinically active degenerative diseases start to appear, such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes, osteoarthritis and cancer, the ailments that make up 80% of age-related degenerative disease. In fact, by age 55 most people are on some form of medication to treat the symptoms of degenerative disease.
So serious aging – with all those nasty ailments - starts at about 45!
Pretty obviously, we need to start making those wise lifestyle choices early on in life (but again, the good news is that it is never too late to make a difference). So:
When to start?
Where to start?
We have already identified three key areas: diet, exercise and stress reduction.
Studies show that regular reasonably vigorous exercise prevents or delays the onset of high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis, cancers and even mental decline! Elderly people who continue to be physically active often belie their age.
We can only advise that you should take exercise. If you need guidance as to what would be suitable for you, you’ll need to consult an expert in that field.
Many illnesses are stress-related. There are steps we can take to reduce our stress levels – stop smoking, cut back on caffeine, reduce our intake of refined grains, sugar, and trans fats (like margarine), get enough sleep and so on.
One of the problems, though, is that so many of the things that make us stressed – traffic, the political situation, pollution and so on - are outside our control.
What we can do is improve our body’s capacity to cope, and that is mainly a matter of nutrition. So let’s turn to the third area, diet.
Diet is crucial not only in maintaining good health from day to day,
but also in extending physical and mental fitness throughout our lives.
Ideally this should be a lifelong aim, but even if you are already
elderly it is not too late to start.
For basic information on how nutrition work for everyone, from children to the elderly, click on our Health Foundations link.
Making sure that you get all the nutrients your body needs in adequate amounts goes a long way to increasing your chances of a healthy old age. Added to this must be a diet that keeps insulin levels under control. Elevated insulin levels will certainly increase the rate of ageing.
The core issue is this:
How can we maximise the health and lifespan of each one of the 73 trillion cells in the human body?
If we can succeed with that, we can maximise the health and longevity of the whole organism, and the key to success is nutrition – what we eat and drink, and how our bodies digest, absorb and utilise this nourishment.
Let’s look, then, at some of the specific benefits of good nutrition in warding off age-related ailments as we become elderly (there are many more than are listed below but these are the most common).
* Antioxidants are crucial to the health of our cells, enabling them to deal with toxins and pollution and reducing the risk of such degenerative diseases as cancer.
* Antioxidants can also prevent or postpone from 50 to 70 percent of cataracts and macular degeneration.
* Vitamin C also helps with cataracts.
* Vitamin E dramatically reduces the likelihood of heart disease.
* Calcium, together with magnesium dramatically reduces the likelihood of osteoporosis and fractures of the pelvis, wrist and arm.
* Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin is essential for proper utilization of calcium in the body.
* The Omega essential oils reduce the effects of arthritis and increase mental acuity.
* Omega-3 protects men against prostatitis and prostatic cancer.
* Chromium normalises our ability to deal with blood sugar and protects against diabetes.
The question now is, are we getting enough of these things?
Many people (including many doctors and other health professionals) will say that all you need is a “good balanced diet”. This is perhaps especially the case with the elderly because they were raised at a time when this idea might well have been true.
We really cannot agree. There are several reasons for this. One is that with modern food processing and storage methods, many foodstuffs have actually lost much of their nutritional value.
Another is that in the modern world, the challenges to our health are increasing all the time. It is revealing, for instance, that despite the progress in medical science, more people suffer from ailments like heart disease than ever before.
For the elderly particularly, there may be special problems. For example,
* As we age, our appetites and our digestive capacity tend to reduce. Elderly people not only eat less, but they are able to digest and absorb less of what is available. And they are less able to chew their food effectively to get maximum nourishment.
* We also tend to lose our enthusiasm for food and for preparing it. Many elderly people, especially if they live alone, become malnourished simply because they can’t be bothered with the chore of making proper meals for themselves.
Remember that we don’t want to wait until we are old - and remember that aging actually starts way back in our twenties! As we said earlier, we can make wise choices that make a huge difference to the way age impacts on us, and the sooner we start the better! And having made a habit of wise choices we will continue to do so into old age.
Start with what?
If we accept that
a. we need a sufficient intake of particular nutrients to ward off the ailments of the elderly,
b. a normal diet will not provide quite enough of these nutrients,
c. it makes sense to boost our intake with supplements.
In fact, it is widely recognised by researchers and other practitioners working in the field of age-related degenerative disease that it is virtually impossible nowadays to get proper nutrition without the assistance of nutritional supplements. On the other hand, it is also recognised that appropriate supplementation can make a huge difference in the health and wellbeing of the elderly.
Remember that nutritional supplements are not drugs or medicines. When you take a supplement, you are not taking something that is alien to your system. Of course, you have to make sure that your supplement is made from natural ingredients in the normal human food chain. All you are doing is making sure that your body is getting enough of the nutrients that it needs.
To give yourself the best chance of sound physical and mental health throughout your lifespan,
a. take exercise
b. avoid the things that damage your system
c. have a well-balanced diet, and
d. add on good quality nutritional supplements that will improve your general health and ward off the specific age-related ailments.
We have already listed some of the most helpful nutrients for particular age issues – antioxidants, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, calcium together with magnesium, Omega-3 and chromium.
You can boost your intake of these with supplements.
For lifelong general wellness, we suggest
* a multivitamin/multivitamin supplement – look for one with lipids and sterols to keep the cell membrane healthy and boost energy;
* a carotenoid supplement to provide the antioxidants that protect the immune system and help prevent heart disease and eye problems – common problems among the elderly;
* a low-fat protein drink with all the amino acids to ensure that your body is able to make all the proteins it needs for digestion, immunity, hormone production, tissue repair and so on.
Apart from ensuring that your supplements are sourced from natural ingredients in the normal human food chain, look also for those that are backed by solid scientific research and correctly balanced for human nutrition.
Before we close, there are some particular age-related problems that can be helped or even avoided.
This is one of the most feared possibilities facing the elderly. We simply cannot imagine losing our mental faculties, becoming a burden to people around us, and not even being able to recognise our loved ones. To many it seems like a fate worse than death.
Is there anything we can do to prevent it, or at least slow it down?
The good news is that there is gathering evidence to say yes, there is! Better still, the advice and action steps are accessible to everyone.
Your brain needs to get the same good treatment that any other part of your body would benefit from.
* You need to control your stress levels. Chronic, uncontrolled stress kills brain cells in the hippocampus. Since this is the memory centre of the brain, its destruction is a sure pathway to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Practise stress-relieving activities such as meditation to prevent this from occurring.
* Lack of physical exercise is very damaging as it results in the brain aging and deteriorating faster than it needs to. Indeed, it is now becoming apparent that exercise in the elderly actually promotes the generation of new brain cells – something that was thought to be totally impossible not too long ago!
* You need to continue with mentally stimulating activities for your whole life. There is no doubt that elderly people who are mentally active maintain their faculties far longer than those who are not. It has been found that the brain can be likened to a muscle in this regard – use it or you lose it. Some suggestions are learning a new language, learning to play a musical instrument, joining a choir, learning to dance, doing puzzles and so on. Reading aloud is a wonderful exercise for the brain. There are almost certainly people who would love the privilege of being read to!
* Poor nutrition is devastating for your brain!
o Omega-3 oils
Studies of large numbers of elderly people have shown that adequate consumption of Omega-3 oils reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia by 60 %
o Diets rich in fruits and vegetables – these result in an up to 40% reduced risk of developing the disease. The reason for this is that the antioxidant intake is increased.
More specifically, antioxidants such as carotenoids and Vitamins E and C all contribute to improved resistance to the disease
o Folic acid – low levels increase the risk of developing the disease threefold! Folic acid is a member of the Vitamin B family.
o Heart and circulatory health – people who have normal cholesterol levels and blood pressures are less likely to develop the disease.
o Obesity – overweight people are twice as likely to develop the disease as people of normal weight. People who exercise regularly also reduce their risk.
You must have noticed that there is nothing really new here if you have read any of the other pages on this site. Everything boils down to making sure that the body gets all the necessary nutrients, in sufficient quantities, and it is then able to keep you in good shape for your whole life, from birth (if not before) until you are indeed elderly.
Starting early is a great idea to prevent the ravages of passing time, but it is never too late to make a significant difference to your health and wellbeing.
Deteriorating eyesight seems to be an unavoidable part of being elderly – but is it?
Eyes very sensitive and they are constantly bombarded by outside forces such as powerful UV rays from the sun, free radicals which constantly erode the macula, and toxins from the environment (like car exhaust, pollution, chlorine, dust, etc.) which cause dryness, eyestrain and inflammation.
However, we all know people who, despite advanced years, still have healthy eyes.
What is the difference between people who suffer from such problems as cataracts, macular degeneration and glaucoma and those who do not? And can we do anything to increase our chances of falling into the group that does not have to deal with the associated problems?
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
Age-related macular degeneration occurs when the macula, an area at the back of the retina, begins to break down. Fragile, leaky blood vessels start to develop in the centre of the retina (the macula) which is the region that is most sensitive to visual detail.
Elderly people suffering from the ailment lose central vision while maintaining peripheral vision – total blindness usually does not occur, but effective vision is destroyed. If you suffer from AMD you can see that a person is present but cannot identify the features, or you know that there is a clock on the wall, but you can’t read the time.
Since this condition is not curable at this time, preventing it should be an important goal.
Research has shown that people getting high levels of Omega-3 oils are much less likely to get AMD than those lacking in this particular nutrient.
Omega-3 has also been shown to play a role in maintaining intraocular eye pressure by helping the eye fluids to drain efficiently. This lowers the risk of developing glaucoma.
Other essential nutrients include adequate Vitamin D levels – which reduce inflammation and prevent unwanted growth of blood vessels on the retina.
Then too, it turns out Grandma was right – eating carrots is good for your eyes! The reason for this is that carrots are rich in carotenoids.
Carotenoids, especially lutein and zeaxanthin and lycopene, can prevent and treat AMD. They are naturally present in the retina, and in especially high concentrations in the macula – but must be provided in adequate amount in the diet.
People who have a high intake of carotenoids are generally protected against the development of AMD. This means eating large variety of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables on a daily basis – and supplementing to close any gaps.
Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), Vitamin C and zinc are also essential for reducing the risk of AMD.
Finally, it is necessary to control your intake of sugars. The people who eat carbohydrates with a high GI are 40% more likely to develop AMD than those eating complex carbohydrates.
Sugary foods are delicious, but very bad for your eyesight.
Vitamin C is absolutely essential if you want to reduce the risk of cataracts. They are caused by a build-up of protein in the lenses that results in cloudy vision. Vitamin E also plays a beneficial role.
Cataracts are treatable by means of surgery, but avoiding surgery is much more desirable.
As if potential cataracts or macular degeneration weren't reason enough to make sure you get your vitamin C, it may also prevent and alleviate glaucoma by reducing pressure in the eyes.
Dry Eye Syndrome
This uncomfortable condition affects many elderly people. It is caused either by a loss of water from the tear film that protects the cornea from the environment or by a reduction in tear production by the tear glands.
The result is irritation and changes to the surface of the eyes which feel gritty and burny.
It has been found that low levels of Omega-3 in the diet predispose people to the problem, so increasing your intake of these essential oils can provide a solution.
As we commented at the start, if we don’t die young we are all going to get old. It’s an inescapable fact of life. Most of us have no desire to die young, but we also have no wish to be elderly and unwell.
Our quality of life and health as we get older depends very much on the lifestyle choices we make at every stage of our lives, and one of the most crucial choices is to ensure that we get the best possible nutrition.
Or, to put it another way, sooner or later nutritional deficiencies will inevitably weaken us, in both mind and body.
Once it is too late, it’s really too late. There’s no going back. The time to start making wise decisions is right now.