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Eat well to age well

Why do some people maintain clear heads and nimble feet well into old age, while others succumb to falls and frailty as soon as the first wrinkle appears?

As Quebec confronts an aging population, this question is a vital one for individuals, families and the province. By studying the diets of nearly 1,800 healthy seniors, McGill Nutrition professor Katherine Gray-Donald and her colleagues at Université de Sherbrooke and Université de Montréal have found some answers.

The most exhaustive study of its kind in Canada, the Quebec Longitudinal Study on Nutrition and Aging (NuAge) tracked participants for four years, collecting a wide variety of dietary, health and lifestyle data. Once the numbers were crunched, researchers were able to tease apart the nuanced and complex impacts of eating habits on the aging process.

Some of the findings from the study confirmed conventional wisdom. “Much is said about the importance of vitamin D,” explains Gray-Donald, “and it is true that a lack of vitamin D is related to problems with motor function.” The researchers studied serum levels of vitamin D in healthy subjects from three age groups: 70, 75 and 80 years old, and found no significant vitamin D deficiency. In contrast, seniors in assisted-living residences generally have very low vitamin D levels.

The solution: Encourage people to take in enough vitamin D to help them stay active. Health Canada now recommends taking vitamin D supplements starting at the age of 50. Results from the NuAge study support this recommendation and highlight its importance.

The study also explored the role of protein in keeping seniors spry. “We are very interested in the causes of weight loss in elderly people. Lost weight generally means lost muscle mass, which in turn causes a certain fragility,” says Gray-Donald. The researchers wanted to determine which nutritional elements could mitigate weight loss and found a clear answer: protein.

“Elderly people sometimes have less appetite,” Gray-Donald continues. “Eating less is not necessarily a problem if their caloric needs are lower, but they need to avoid cutting down their protein intake. For example, instead of having some toast and coffee for their evening meal, they should have a piece of cheese or a yogurt, both sources of protein.”

So is the key to a healthy and active golden age as simple as a vitamin D tablet and a slice of cheese? Obviously there are many factors at play in any individual’s health, but putting some straightforward recommendations into practice could go a long way toward keeping Quebec’s seniors fit and strong. 

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