Merck Manual

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Spotlight on Aging: Nutrition

Spotlight on Aging: Nutrition

The best diet for older people has not been determined. However, older people may benefit from changing some aspects of their diet, based on the way the body changes as it ages. No changes are required for some nutrients such as carbohydrates and fats.

  • Calories: As people age, they tend to be less active and thus use less energy, making it easier to gain weight. If they try to consume fewer calories to avoid weight gain, they may not get all the nutrients needed—particularly vitamins and minerals. If older people stay physically active, their need for calories may not change.

  • Protein: As people age, they tend to lose muscle. If older people do not consume enough protein, they may lose even more muscle. For older people who have problems eating (for example, because of difficulty swallowing or dental disorders), protein can be consumed in foods that are easier to chew than meat, such as fish, dairy products, eggs, peanut butter, beans, and soy products.

  • Fiber: Eating enough fiber can help counter the slowing of the digestive tract that occurs as people age. Older people should eat 8 to 12 servings of high-fiber foods daily. Getting fiber from foods is best, but fiber supplements, such as psyllium, may be needed.

  • Vitamins and minerals: Older people may need to take supplements of specific vitamins and minerals in addition to a multivitamin. Calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 are examples. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D from the diet is difficult. These nutrients are needed to maintain strong bones, which are particularly important for older people. Some older people do not absorb enough vitamin B12, even though they consume enough in foods, because the stomach and intestine become less able to remove vitamin B12 from food or to absorb it. Older people with this problem can absorb vitamin B12 better when it is given as a supplement.

  • Water: As people age, they are more likely to become dehydrated because their ability to sense thirst decreases. Thus, older people need to make a conscious effort to drink enough fluids rather than wait until they feel thirsty.

Older people are more likely to have disorders or take drugs that can change the body’s nutritional needs or the body’s ability to meet those needs. Disorders and drugs can decrease appetite or interfere with the absorption of nutrients. When older people see their doctor, they should ask their doctor whether the disorders they have or the drugs they take affect nutrition in any way.