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While good nutrition is essential at any age, eating right becomes increasingly important as you age. Your nutritional needs change as you age for a variety of reasons, and these changes affect the way your body moves, absorbs and uses the nutrients you take in.
One of the primary reasons nutrition gets increasingly important as you age, according to the National Library of Medicine, is that “a good diet in your later years reduces your risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart diseases and certain cancers.”
Another big reason nutrition gets more important as you grow older is that your aging body does not absorb nutrients as well as it once did. This means you would need to eat a larger quantity of your regular diet to gain the same nutrition. Eating huge amounts of food would lead to unwanted weight gain, of course, so it is important to focus on nutrient-rich foods as you age.
Age-related changes to your digestive tract make nutrition more important in your senior years. Smooth muscles push food through your digestive tract, an action known as gastrointestinal (GI) motility. Your body absorbs various nutrients from the food as it moves. GI motility slows as you age so it takes longer for food and drugs to move through your digestive tract. This means food sits around in your digestive tract even after you have absorbed all the nutrients from it; lingering food prevents fresher, nutrient-rich food from entering your digestive tract. The same holds true for medications – the aging digestive tract holds chemicals from drugs longer than the gastrointestinal tract of a younger person.
Nutrition should match your declining activity level. If you are like most people, you become less active as you age. An increasingly sedentary lifestyle means you are not burning off calories and building muscle mass as you used to, which puts you at risk for becoming weak and overweight. Proper nutrition can help reduce unwanted weight gain and slow the rate at which you lose muscle mass.
Your metabolism also changes as you age. The complex physical and chemical metabolic processes by which your body uses food, water and nutrients slows down, so your body does not absorb and utilize these resources as efficiently as it once did.
As your body loses its ability to move, absorb and metabolize nutrients, your risk for nutritional deficiencies and illness increases. Your body loses its ability to absorb calcium, for example, and this weakens your bones to increase your risk for fractures. To counteract this effect of aging, you will need to increase your calcium intake by eating more calcium-rich foods, such as fat-free and low-fat dairy, dark green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals and fruit juices, and canned fish.
As you age, you are more likely to take medications for acute or chronic conditions. Medications can affect how your body absorbs nutrients, and nutrition can affect how drugs affect your body.
Eating certain foods while taking specific medications commonly used in older patients can cause serious side effects. Combining cheese and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), commonly prescribed to treat depression in older patients, can cause life-threatening high blood pressure.
Some drugs, like metoclopramide for heartburn caused by acid reflux, can increase GI motility to the point where food moves through your body so fast you never have a chance to absorb the nutrients. Other medications, such as opioid pain medication and anticholinergics for the breathing problem COPD, can slow GI motility to a crawl.
Nutrition can affect the body’s response to medications. Certain foods can change the rate at which your body absorbs drugs. A high protein diet can accelerate metabolism of certain medications, for example, while consuming grapefruit can inhibit your body’s absorption of some drugs.
Some drugs affect the way your body absorbs or metabolizes minerals. Diuretics, which are “water pills” often-prescribed to older patients with heart problems, can lower potassium. Certain antibiotics can reduce iron absorption. Deficiencies in calcium, magnesium or zinc may interfere with the way your body metabolizes drugs. Vitamin C deficiency also decreases metabolism, especially in the elderly.
Nutritional deficiencies can also affect the absorption and metabolism of medications. Severe protein and calorie deficiencies can impair your body’s response to drugs by reducing its ability to absorb medications or by changing how your system deals with protein.
The Live Better Team
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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.