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Nutritious, Sustainable Diets Can Support Healthy Aging

Greater scientific cooperation and inclusivity of older adults can encourage better health, mobility, and cognition for seniors.

By Stéphane Vidry, PhD, and Nobuharu Tsujimoto, MSc

We live in an exciting time. Innovations—whether they’re medical or technological—have lengthened lifespans in many regions around the world. However, our global society and food systems may not be equipped to support the growing number of older adults. A critical issue is facing several countries, such as Japan and the United States: aging populations that need access to nutritious, safe, and sustainable diets.

Sustainable diets include foods that have low environmental impacts, such as locally and seasonally available foods, and produce less waste. For example, whole grain cereals can provide a sustainable and healthful source of plant proteins. Unsustainable diets don’t help develop healthful habits that involve eating nutritionally balanced food and consuming enough vitamins and nutrients.

According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there are more than 90,500 people over the age of 100 in Japan. In addition, the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated that the United States was home to more than 2.4 million people over the age of 90 in 2021. The growing older population creates a need for greater coordination and international scientific cooperation to advance food and nutrition scientists’ understanding of key nutrients needed in the aging process.

As individuals age, they become more susceptible to many diseases and conditions. Having access to nutritious, sustainable diets can help support healthy aging through greater cognition, strengthened immune systems, and improved physical health and mobility.

Physical Health
Sarcopenia, characterized by a loss of muscle mass and strength, is a condition impacting many older adults. It can lead to a reduced quality of life and dangerous situations, such as being at an increased risk of falling. Sarcopenia also can lead to disability and the inability to perform physical tasks. Moreover, it can result in the loss of independence, as well as the need for hospitalization, care, and admission to a long term care facility. However, certain nutrition interventions can help prevent or treat sarcopenia.

According to peer-reviewed research, leucine, an amino acid, has a significant effect on muscle mass in elderly individuals. In addition, protein supplements, along with resistance training, can help increase muscle mass and strength. More recently, studies have shown that resistance training for people at retirement age can help treat both obesity and sarcopenia. Coupled with greater protein intake, exercise also can help reduce the amount of body fat.

Unfortunately, aging can impact not just physical abilities, but also cognitive abilities. According to the World Health Organization, dementia leads to the deterioration of functions like memory, thinking, and comprehension. And “although dementia mainly affects older people, it is not an inevitable consequence of aging.”

This is where age-appropriate, nutritious diets come into play. Studies have shown that B vitamin supplementation can help slow cognitive decline, and increasing folic acid intake by eating leafy greens also can help reduce the risk of dementia. Foods that contain B vitamins and folic acid include nuts, whole grain breads, milk, eggs, fish, broccoli, kale, spinach, chickpeas, and more, according to the United Kingdom's National Health Service. As described in a review article published in the September 2022 issue of The Lancet Planetary Health, high vegetable intake, particularly green leafy vegetables, is associated with slow cognitive decline.

Nutritious diets also can support a healthy immune system, especially during the aging process. Philip Calder, BSc, PhD, DPhil, RNutr, FSB, FAFN, a professor at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, described immunity during a scientific presentation as protection against pathogens like viruses or bacteria, and that a weak immune system leads to poor defenses against these harmful pathogens, which can cause infection.

Calder highlighted the causal link between diet and immunity and infection, and he described the immune system decline that can happen later in life, particularly when there are nutrient deficiencies. To support healthy immunity while aging, Calder listed key strategies for older populations, including having enough to eat—particularly for energy and protein—and eating a diverse, well-balanced diet. More specifically, Calder listed vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, C, D and, E, as well as zinc, iron, copper, and selenium, that contribute to properly functioning immune systems.

This bears out in the research. For example, a recent journal article shone a spotlight on the public health issue of vitamin D deficiencies in nursing home residents around the world. In fact, the study’s coauthors said, “With the proven benefit of vitamin D for immune function, it’s more important than ever to improve vitamin D status in this group.”

However, nutritious and sustainable diets are increasingly out of reach. According to the UN-Nutrition Journal, nearly "3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020," which is an increase of 112 million people from 2019. That’s why greater international scientific cooperation and effective public-private partnerships are so important.

Improved cooperation across the globe can help design more suitable and palatable food options for older populations. Understanding the nutrient needs of the elderly, as well as what nutrients are present in seasonal foods and readily available regionally, can help support not just healthful diets but sustainability too.

Food systems—from food growers to producers and manufacturers—also can benefit from greater research cooperation. Scientists can use this research to design more suitable food options for older adults, such as an abundant supply of fruits and vegetables, protein-rich foods, and fluids, including water, tea, and soups. Fluid intake is particularly important in warmer weather or climates. Governments also need this scientific research and data to make informed decisions that are reflective of their aging populations’ needs.

Global Perspective
As populations around the world age, the issue of developing nutritious, sustainable diets that are inclusive of older adults isn’t only important but globally relevant. Improved nutrition for seniors can support optimum immune systems that reduce infection, delay cognitive decline, help manage chronic diseases (eg, obesity, Alzheimer's disease, stroke, and arthritis), and lower the risk of sarcopenia and other types of muscle mass loss. Food system innovations that create more palatable and nutrient-rich diets also can help achieve the United Nations’ ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which aims to end hunger and poverty, protect the environment, and promote physical and mental health and well-being.

Our global society should continue to deepen its understanding of healthful diets across all life stages, including individuals who are in their advanced years. By establishing strategic public-private partnerships, we can advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals focused on improving health and well-being, combating inequality, and encouraging sustainability. We owe it to future generations to spark the meaningful change needed in today’s food systems.

Stéphane Vidry, PhD, is global executive director of International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI).

Nobuharu Tsujimoto, MSc, is executive director of ILSI Japan.