28. Food for Thought: The Role of Nutrition in Healthy Aging

Published June 30, 2021

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Show Notes

Alliance for Aging Research President and CEO Sue Peschin interviews Lindsay Clarke, the Alliance’s Vice President of Health Education and Advocacy, about the importance of good nutrition for healthy aging.

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hi everyone and welcome to This is Growing Old, a podcast from the Alliance for Aging Research. I’m Sue Peschin, President and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. I’m really honored to introduce you to today’s guest. She has worked at the Alliance for Aging Research for more than 15 years, and she does an incredible job overseeing the organization’s health programs. Everyone, please meet Lindsay Clarke, the Alliance’s vice president of health education and advocacy. Lindsay, thank you so much for joining us today.

Lindsay Clarke:

Thanks for having me on, this is fun.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah, you and your team recently released a new educational film on nutrition and aging called Food for Thought, The Role of Nutrition in Healthy Aging. Can you please share with folks who are listening, why we wanted to do this project?

Lindsay Clarke:

Of course, we were really excited at the Alliance for this opportunity to create a new resource on nutrition and aging. The way we eat throughout our lives impacts the way we age. And most people realize that what they eat impacts their health, but they don’t often consider or understand the impact of nutrition on disease prevention and disease progression. A healthy diet can help maintain a healthy weight, and we’re all hyper aware of that, but it can also help lower our blood pressure, maintain healthy blood sugar control, manage arthritis, reduce the risk of cancer, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, prevent and slow the progression of eye disease. Keep our bones and muscles strong and help maintain brain health.

Sue Peschin:

Wow, well give me some of that. So, but how, I guess, what I think would be interesting to learn is, how does nutrition put us at a higher or lower risk of disease?

Lindsay Clarke:

Well, there are a number of ways. So, for something like heart disease diets that are too high in saturated fats, cholesterol and salt can clog and harden our arteries, increase blood pressure, increase the strain on our hearts for diabetes. We know that a diet too high in sugar can impact the functioning of our pancreas. And there are more well-known than most, but poor nutrition also weakens our immune systems, leaves us vulnerable to infections, slower recovery and wound healing. It also causes unhealthy weight changes and muscle loss that can lead to things like frailty, falls, broken bones, disability, loss of independence and disease complications. It can also lead to nutrition-related diseases and conditions. And we know that 60% of adults in the US have one or more diet related chronic diseases. So, malnutrition is a good example. This is a consequence of not getting the right nutrients and calories. Becomes more common with age.

Lindsay Clarke:

We know that one and two older adults are at risk for malnutrition, and it can happen to anyone, even those who are overweight or obese can be malnourished. And it doesn’t just happen to those who suffer from hunger or who don’t have access to healthy food. Malnutrition can lead to things like loss of weight and muscle, frailty, falls, infection and delayed healing of broken bones. Sarcopenia is another example and something that we talk a lot about at the Alliance for Aging Research, we lead the aging emotion coalition focused on sarcopenia. And sarcopenia is the progressive loss of skeletal muscle mass and function. And it’s caused by changes in the body, including the body’s ability to convert protein into muscle.

Lindsay Clarke:

It’s a really serious condition that also can lead to disability, hospitalization need for long-term care and even death. And we know that 10 to 20% of older adults have sarcopenia. And then another one I think more people know more about is osteoporosis. So, a lot of us have heard of it and it leads to weak and brittle bones, falls and fractures. It can be caused by diseases and medications, but can also be a result of eating disorders or getting too little calcium and vitamin D. And we know that one in two men and one in four women ages 50 and older will break a bone due to osteoporosis.

Sue Peschin:

Wow, well, I feel like we’re hearing stuff every day, eat this, don’t eat that. What is a healthy diet?

Lindsay Clarke:

Well, we all need a well balanced diet that’s full of nutritious foods, things that we know about. Fruits and veggies, the more colorful, the better. Whole grains, legumes, nuts, lean proteins. We also need to really look at our sugar, salt, saturated and solid fat intake, and really limit those and look at our alcohol intake and limit that. And what that looks like on our plates is going to vary from person to person. So, the US department of agriculture earlier this year issued an update to their dietary guidelines and they give really important recommendations on achieving a well-rounded diet, no matter your age, they emphasize that the food and beverages that we consume really have a profound impact on our health now and in the years to come. But they also really underscore that Americans don’t follow a healthy dietary pattern. In fact, only 63% of adults ages 60 plus follow the dietary guidelines.

Sue Peschin:

Hmm. Wow. And it sounds like there’s also a focus on older people and I’m just sort of wondering why do we need to change what we eat as we age?

Lindsay Clarke:

Yeah, it’s a great question. And those guidelines do make recommendations that are specific to different age groups, including people over 65, excuse me, because it recognizes that our nutritional needs change with age. So, as we age, we typically need fewer calories, but we need more protein, calcium, fiber and certain vitamins and minerals. And this has to do with changes to our metabolism. Also, our body’s ability to absorb and use the nutrients that we consume. We’re also more likely to experience changes to our sense of taste, to chewing and swallowing, maybe from dental problems. So, we may be consuming less or avoiding certain foods. We’re more likely to have medical conditions as we age. And those conditions can require medications that impact our appetite, or they might require us to make changes to our diets, to take those medications. They may interact with alcohol.

Lindsay Clarke:

So, we might have to limit alcohol consumption. We’re also because of increased frailty, decreased mobility. It can make it harder to shop, to get to the store, to get around and prepare meals on our own. We’re also more likely with age to experience bladder or incontinence issues. So, we may find ourselves avoiding water and beverages. We also have a decline in our sense of thirst with age. So, we really need to watch our water intake and we’re more likely to be socially isolated, which can really impact appetite. So, there’s a lot of things going on that change what we consume and how our body uses what we consume. So, we really need to pay attention to these changes since nutrition plays such a critical role in our health and our independence as we age.

Sue Peschin:

So, at the very beginning, you talked about how the new dietary guidelines have some specific information about healthy eating over the age of 65. What do they recommend?

Lindsay Clarke:

Right. So, they say follow the over overall guidelines. But if you’re over age 65, you should also make sure, really look at getting the recommended daily calories. And that does change with age, making sure we get enough lean protein. So, we know that around 46% of adults over the age of 70 don’t get what they need in terms of protein. Avoiding alcoholic beverages or drinking in moderation, drinking enough fluid to stay hydrated. We just talked about the fact that we drink less and we have a decreased sense of thirst. So, we need more water, but we should avoid sweetened beverages. And we may need to talk to healthcare professionals about nutrition supplements, because not everyone can meet their nutritional needs through food alone. So, the guidelines emphasize all of that, but also that it’s not one size fits all. So, everyone should customize these recommendations to fit their personal preferences, their cultural traditions, their budget constraints.

Sue Peschin:

Oh, that’s good. Yeah. I like, it’s not one size fits all. I’ve been many sizes so I can relate. So, let’s talk a little bit more about budget constraints because getting a healthy meal on your plate is something that a lot of people in our country can’t take for granted, especially a lot of older adults who might live on a fixed day income.

Lindsay Clarke:

Yeah, it’s a really important point. The harsh reality is that each year, at least 7% of older Americans experience food insecurity and they’re struggling to put healthy food on their plate. And maybe that they can’t afford the healthy food, which unfortunately usually costs at least twice as much as unhealthier options. A lot of older adults live in food deserts. So, their only access to food, especially if they have mobility issues or transportation issues, they need to take the bus. The closest store might be a convenience store or a gas station. And that’s not usually where you’re getting fresh fruits and vegetables. So, they’re really limited in the way of healthy foods there, but there’s organizations that can help. So, the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. There’s meals on wheels, local senior centers, other community-based nutrition programs can all help people get healthy food on their plates. And they’re really saving programs that are an undeniable part of keeping Americans healthy. Especially when we think about the long-term ramifications of a poor diet. It’s really, these are important services.

Sue Peschin:

That’s great. And your video is an important video. I’m a little bit biased, but where can listeners go to view the film and learn more.

Lindsay Clarke:

Well. So, they should check it out at agingresearch.org/nutrition. They’ll find the new film, Food for Thought, but we also have a lot of other resources on malnutrition, on nutrition for a healthy life and on sarcopenia.

Sue Peschin:

That’s great. So, do you have any final advice on nutrition for our listeners?

Lindsay Clarke:

Yeah. People need to know that we all have the power to maximize and improve our health. And that means also adding vitality to our years, reducing our risk of disease, and increasing our health spans, which are those number of years that we’re living in good health. So, we can have fewer years that we’re not living in good health. And research proves time and time again, it’s never too late to make improvements. So, we can start now on the flip side, it’s never too early to start eating healthy.

Sue Peschin:

That’s good. I like it, very positive. So, if you have a bad day, you can go the next day or no bad days. Maybe you just don’t need exactly the way you would like to. So, Lindsay, you’ve worked at the Alliance for, for more than 15 years. And in that time you’ve created a lot of fantastic award winning resources. Can you explain to our listeners why you think health education resources are so important for older adults and family members too, to learn about their health?

Lindsay Clarke:

Yeah. I mean, I think the reason that our materials are successful and resonate with folks is because they take what’s often confusing and daunting medical information. And getting a diagnosis is so overwhelming and it’s hard to digest at the time of the diagnosis. Everything you’re hearing, even if you have a loved one with you, which we really advocate for. But even with another set of ears there, it can be too much to take in. And there’s a lot of questions. And so we take something that’s daunting and overwhelming and complicated, and we try to make it really easy to access and understand, and our resources not only make the information accessible, I like to believe, but they empower older adults to take charge of their health, to be their own advocates and bring advocates with them and to ask questions. And then they also share resources on new innovations and research breakthroughs. So, highlighting what patients should be on the lookout for, the questions they should ask and even how they can get involved in clinical trials, if they’d like to.

Sue Peschin:

Awesome. That’s great. It sounds like a good place to go. So, I’m switching gears to ask a question we ask all of our guests. When you were a kid, what did you imagine growing older would be like?

Lindsay Clarke:

Well, I don’t know that I really thought about growing old, but I know that, I mean, I had grandparents on both sides of my family that lived well into their 90s. And despite seeing some of the challenges of aging through them, they were always fun and active. And my grandmother in particular was, and she still is a model for me on how to live life to the fullest. She was always laughing. She was always having a good time. She was really the life of every party she was at. And with all of my grandparents, I think I just saw growing older as a time for fun and for freedom and a time to enjoy your family and your retirement and all of the things that make you happy.

Sue Peschin:

I love it. That’s great. That’s awesome. I would love to see their pictures. I probably have, but I’d love to see them again.

Lindsay Clarke:

. Yeah. I will share them.

Sue Peschin:

Okay. So, what do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Lindsay Clarke:

Well, it’s funny, when I thought about this, I know I’ve heard you say this. I’ve heard other guests say this, but even though there’s still plenty of surprises and mysteries ahead, there’s a certain sort of confidence and understanding that comes with age. And we don’t have to worry as much about the small stuff, although I certainly still worry, but we can focus on the things that matter to us and our families a little bit more than we were younger. And so I’m trying to pass that on to my kiddos with the hopes that they can have some of that knowledge when they’re still young, because I feel like if they can be young and have all that wisdom, that’s just an incredible combination. So, not that I have all the wisdom, but I think we just learn not to sweat the small stuff.

Sue Peschin:

Hmm. Lucky kiddos to have you for a mom. So, Lindsay, it’s really been wonderful talking with you today and thank you so much for all you do for the Alliance for Aging Research.

Lindsay Clarke:

Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

Sue Peschin:

So, that’s all for today’s episode. Thank you so much for listening. Please visit agingresearch.org to learn more about the awesome resources that Lindsay creates to help older Americans. Thank you and have a great day.