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September 12, 2006 > Healthy Aging and Good Nutrition Go Hand in Hand

Healthy Aging and Good Nutrition Go Hand in Hand

by Washington Hospital

The key to a long and successful life is the ability to adapt to change. The world around us constantly changes as we grow older, and our bodies change as well. The nutritional needs for older adults are different than any stage of life that has come before. But seniors can adapt their diets to aid the smooth transition into the golden years.

“Older adults have normal physiological changes that occur in aging that impact nutritional needs,” explains Mary Louise Zernicke, Senior Nutritionist for the Alameda County Area Agency on Aging.

On Tuesday, September 19, Zernicke will better explain senior dietary needs in a free Health and Wellness seminar titled: Nutritional Issues for Seniors: Eating for Health at Washington Hospital. The seminar is intended for those 60 years of age and older to learn about the changes our bodies go through as we age and how we can accommodate those changes through dietary choices. The seminar is sponsored by Washington Senior Care.

A basic, balanced diet is as important for seniors as it is for any age group. An older person needs to make some conscientious dietary adjustments to compensate for impulses that once came very naturally, such as the need to drink fluids. Older adults may not realize that while they were aging, they have been losing their thirst reflex. Without feeling thirsty, it’s easy to forget to drink something and so dehydration in older adults becomes an issue. Older adults need to make sure they drink water and other beverages so the body has the proper amount of fluids.

The senses of taste and smell may also decrease with age, leaving many seniors feeling the meals they once loved are suddenly uninteresting and uninspiring. One impulse to re-invigorate the food is to reach for the salt shaker but adding salt to get flavor isn’t the answer. Too much sodium isn’t good for anyone, but can be especially dangerous to those with high blood pressure or at risk for heart disease. However, seniors can find that using different herbs, spices, garlic and lemon juice can enliven food without the harmful effects of sodium.

Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium to help form and maintain strong bones. “We get almost all of our vitamin D from the sun,” Zernicke says. Vitamin D is primarily absorbed through the skin, but seniors can find their vitamin D absorption is reduced by more than half as they age since older, thinning skin is less able to convert vitamin D to its active form. Also, older, homebound adults often don’t get sufficient exposure to the sun, or seniors retreat from the sun for fear of cancer.

A vitamin D deficiency can lead to thin, brittle, soft or misshapen bones. In older adults, adequate amounts of vitamin D are critical for calcium to do its work in preventing osteoporosis. Seniors can get some vitamin D from fortified foods, like milk and breakfast cereal, and from supplements. Consult a health professional before choosing vitamin D supplements.

Our stomach acid decreases as we age which affects the body’s ability to naturally release vitamin B-12 from animal proteins, where it naturally occurs. Vitamin B-12 is needed to make red blood cells and to maintain the central nervous system. The decreased ability to release B-12 through stomach acid results in lower blood levels of this important vitamin. But vitamin B-12 found in fortified foods, such as breakfast cereal, can be absorbed by older adults despite the low stomach acid. Seniors should look to these fortified foods, as well as supplements, to keep healthy body levels of vitamin B-12.

The foods we eat and good nutrition directly affects how our bodies function and how we feel. Zernicke points out that for older adults, eating right has added benefits for the immune system to help fight off disease.

“As one gets older, the immune function decreases,” Zernicke says. “A lot of health problems are actually immune system disorders. What you eat affects your immune system.”

The Nutrition for Seniors seminar will be held on Tuesday, September 19 from 10 a.m. to Noon in Rooms A & B of the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium of Washington West building located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont across the street from the main hospital. To register for this class, call Washington Hospital’s toll free Health Connection line at (800) 963-7070.

The Washington Senior Care Plan is for seniors living within the Washington Township Health Care District who have difficulty finding good healthcare insurance. The Washington Senior Care Medicare Supplement Plan is a Medigap product that offers affordable premiums, reasonable underwriting criteria and a credentialed medical staff. Members of the Washington Senior Care Plan have unlimited access to the resources and services within the Washington Hospital Healthcare System. A Washington Senior Care Specialist is available to answer your questions or provide you with an application. For more information, call (800) 993-8995 or visit the Washington Hospital Web site at, click on “For Our Community” and select “Senior Care Plan from the drop-down menu.

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