Nutrition and Ageing

Medical science has sharply lowered the mortality rate as a result of infection; diseases, thus bringing about a higher average life expectancy and a larger percentage of elderly people. Medical doctors, nutritionists and other health personnel endeavour to lengthen life expectancy and improve the QUALITY of life. Since an estimated third to one half of the health problems of the elderly may be associated with their food intake, it is plain that good nutrition and a good quality of life go together.

Unfortunately, the effects of poor nutrition are often only noticed after the passage of several decades. Only when the symptoms of poor nutrition become evident do the elderly take notice of the effect of their present eating habits. And then they tend to put their faith in nutritional miracles, with the result that they become easy prey for quacks and the promoters of so‑called health foods. The use of vitamins and mineral supplements is relatively common among the elderly. But I: it really necessary?

Advantages of good nutrition

The intake of sufficient quantities of the correct kinds of foods will meet all the nutritional needs of the elderly. Good nutrition also boosts resistance to diseases and stress. It allows the inherited constitution to come into its own, so that the elderly person who is genetically programmed to remain "young" for a longer period, is enabled to reach a high age.

Although heredity plays a part in the incidence of diseases resulting in premature ageing and death, the incidence and seriousness of heart attacks, strokes, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, gall‑bladder, liver, kidney and skin diseases, as well as many other ailments, are decidedly influenced by nutrition.

What should the elderly eat?

Body changes with ageing

The following changes in the bodies of the aged may affect their nutrition:

Diseases of the Aged

Most of the diseases from which older people suffer also occur in younger people. Many of these conditions are chronic and correct nutrition is essential to enable the body to function as well as possible in the circumstances.

Of all the nutritional diseases of the elderly obesity is probably the most common. Obesity increases the incidence and/or aggravates the discomfort of many complaints, e.g. bronchitis, shortness of breath, gallstones, hernias and all diseases of the bones and joints (such as osteoporosis and arthritis). Wrong eating habits sometimes play an important part in causing diseases and in some cases a change of diet forms part of the treatment.

Cardiovascular Diseases

From childhood cholesterol and other fatty substances are deposited in the blood-vessel walls. This can develop into a condition in which the blood-vessels are narrowed and their walls hardened. If the blood-vessels supplying the heart muscle with blood are seriously constricted individuals may suffer from angina (heart-cramp) when they are tense or become physically active. If the flow of blood to the heart muscle is interrupted, a heart attack occurs. As the blood-ves­sels become hardened they lose their elasticity, which may cause fragility of the walls and bleeding. When this occurs in the blood-vessels supplying the brain a stroke results.

A more prudent life-style and eating habits may decrease the incidence of coronary heart disease. Existing damage cannot, however, be eliminated.


One is constipated when irregular bowel movement causes discomfort and indigestion. People who have healthy living and eating habits usually have one or more motions every day, but this is not absolutely necessary.

The most common causes of constipation are:

What stimulates movement of the bowels?


The possible causes of hypertension are:

An inherited tendency; sex (men run a geater risk than women); age; tension; and two factors related to nutrition, viz excessive use of salt and obesity.

It is known that tension can cause a sudden and temporary rise in blood pressure. Food that contains a lot of salt can cause hypertension in individuals with an inborn sensitivity to salt. Non‑sensitive individuals remain normal on the same diet. The possibility of a person developing heart problems is much greater if he has high blood pressure and is, in addition, obese. A loss of weight is sometimes the only prescription for moderately high blood pressure.


Gout runs in families. It is a form of arthritis; usually the big toe is the first joint to be affected. Individuals suffering from gout have an excess of uric acid in the blood and uric acid crystals in and around the affected joints. Normally uric acid is systematically excreted in the urine and only small amounts are found in the blood.

Uric acid is formed in the body from purine. Liver, kidneys, brains, gravy, meat extract and sardines are the richest sources of purine.

Other kinds of fish, all kinds of meat, dry legumes, wheat-germ and rolled oats are moderately rich sources. Half of the uric acid in the blood of normal people is formed by the body itself. The other half, contributed by food, nevertheless plays a very important part in the control of gout and prevention of acute attacks.

The obese should follow a diet that will reduce weight slowly. Fasting leads to an increase in blood uric acid and may bring on an attack of gout.

Diabetes Mellitus

One of the symptoms of those who suffer from diabetes is too high a blood sugar (glucose) level. The glucose comes from digested food and is normally transported rapidly from the blood to the tissues. The ability of the elderly to handle glucose becomes impaired. The bloodstream can therefore easily become overloaded with glucose.

Diabetes which develop at an advanced age is usually of a mild nature. As a rule, no medication is necessary, as the diabetes can be controlled by diet alone:

Produced by the Department of Health Services and Welfare

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