In This Article
- Staying vital and active in your golden years
- Nutrient changes as you age
- Dealing with physical obstacles associated with aging
- Keeping your kitchen simple
- Managing medication complications
The secrets to aging gracefully are surfacing, with more evidence supporting the benefits of healthy living. After recently spending time visiting a relative in a nursing home, the desperate need for reformed health management became even more blaringly obvious. What’s the point of living well into old age if you’re not able to enjoy it? With medical advances, people can be kept alive by invasive procedures and strong medications for decades. Unfortunately, these advancements come with a price.
The good news is it’s never too late to start taking care of your body. Living a healthy lifestyle can help keep you active and youthful while avoiding cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, obesity, and most cancers. A whole food, plant-based diet—together with exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management—appears to be that fountain of youth we’ve all been searching for.
Living Longer Instead of Living Longer
Leading a vital, active life well into old age until you simply slip painlessly away is the best plan for living. Many people object to this idea, arguing that a shorter life is preferential to overhauling diet and lifestyle. Unfortunately, the choice isn’t that simple. Quality of life and functional independence matter most; these objectives are precisely what you can control with your lifestyle choices.
Although how long you live comes with no guarantees, eating well, exercising consistently, and managing stress improves how well you live and how long you maintain your youth, or healthspan. The story of World Strongman Joe Rollino epitomizes this point: Joe ate a vegetarian diet while abstaining from cigarettes and alcohol. Considered one of the greatest performing strongmen ever to live, he recently was killed at the age of 104 when hit by a car during his daily 5-mile walk. Although his story is ironic, it demonstrates that lifestyle leads to vitality and health, even in your centenarian years.
Current life expectancy at birth is 78.8 years. The oldest documented person was a French woman who lived to the age of 122 years and 164 days. It’s not clear whether “Blue Zones” longevity was because of or in spite of meat consumption, but what was consistent is they didn’t eat much. Meat was usually served during celebrations and typically used in condiment sizes as flavoring.
Typically, after a lifetime of eating poorly and remaining sedentary, the cardiovascular system breaks down. Vascular events occur either at powerful enough levels to induce death (as in a massive heart attack or stroke) or at small degrees, which can lead to dementia, blood clots, and minimized freedom of movement. In the case of the latter, seniors can survive for many years with medications that lower blood pressure and cholesterol, stent placements in their arteries, or bypass surgeries. They may be kept alive, but how well are they living? Suffering with illness heavily influences daily life. Visiting doctors or enduring tests and procedures isn’t the same as traveling, taking dancing lessons, or enjoying time with people you love.
In a nursing home environment, most residents sit around in wheelchairs or lie in their beds for most of the day. Yet our bodies have the potential for so much more than this scenario. You can find plenty of wonderful examples of fit, healthy seniors living joyously active lives. With some simple lifestyle tweaks, you can enrich your senior years and extend your capacity for deliciously living well into old age. Be defiant. Redefine the meaning of aging gracefully.
Naturally Enhanced Nutrient Needs
Your nutrient requirements change throughout your life span. Your need for many micronutrients increases after age 51 and then again after age 70. Adding to the challenge of meeting these increased needs is the fact that most people eat less as they grow older. This means you must focus on nutrient density and make every bite count.
Your metabolism slows as you age because of muscle loss, decreased physical activity, and reduced digestion efficiency. Therefore, to maintain your ideal body weight, you need to eat fewer calories. The metabolism myths explain why the less you eat, the slower you age. Ideally, you need to make your diet so nutrient-dense that you can get away with eating only as much as your body truly needs.
Muscle mass declines by approximately 1 percent per year after age 40. On average, you lose 30 percent of your strength between age 50 and 70, and another 30 percent each decade after that. Exercise combats this loss, helping you maintain muscle strength and function. Incorporating strength training into your exercise routine a few times a week is an excellent investment in your quality of life. It’s never too late to start!
Your calcium and vitamin B6 requirements increase slightly after age 51, so to enhance your intake, emphasize leafy green vegetables, broccoli, baked potatoes, bananas, oats, tofu, beans, and seeds. Circulating vitamin D levels in the blood decrease as you grow older, especially after age 70. As with every other age group, continue to stay on top of your 25-hydroxyvitamin D blood test and supplement as necessary.
Because of the higher risk of osteoporosis and fractures in later life, it’s critical to maintain optimum levels of vitamin D and calcium. Supplement with vitamin D if your blood test reveals suboptimal levels, and eat plenty of calcium-rich plant foods.
Iron is harmful in excess amounts because it induces oxidation. Once women reach menopause, they stop losing iron via their monthly menstrual cycles and their iron requirements return to those of the prepuberty years. To prevent overconsumption, supplementation is necessary only as a stop-gap measure to address a deficiency for a temporary period of time. Usually, an iron deficiency indicates a medical problem instead of a nutritional imbalance.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is extremely common among the elderly, regardless of diet. A common condition called atrophic gastritis is often to blame, as are depleted vitamin B12 stores, insufficient intake, and inadequate absorption. Be sure to consume adequate amounts of foods fortified with B12 (plant milks and nutritional yeast are excellent options) and, most importantly, take a B12 supplement using one of these three dosing schedules: 50 micrograms twice a day, 150 micrograms once per day, or 2,500 micrograms once per week.
Atrophic gastritis is chronic inflammation of the stomach lining that interferes with vitamin B12 absorption. It affects up to half of adults over age 60.
Dealing with Age-Related Physical Changes
Seniors have unique challenges when it comes to eating optimally. Malnutrition is common, due to multiple factors. Many medications and chronic conditions affect appetite, hydration, swallowing, digestion, and absorption. Naturally occurring physical changes of aging, like decreased appetite, chewing difficulty, decreased taste sensation, mobility limitations, and sluggish GI function, also impact food consumption. Psychological factors come into play as well. Depression, fatigue, loneliness, anxiety, and cognitive decline are common and make eating choices less of a priority.
Ideally, eating a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet prevents many of these issues. Chronic conditions that elicit the need for medications should not exist, and limitations of movement capacity should not occur. The lifelong neglect of proactive nourishment and adequate exercise is what leads to these problems. However, if you find yourself struggling with challenges, establish a solid plan to help you get the nutrients necessary to improve your health.
Constipation is common in older adults, thanks to sluggish digestion, medications, and inadequate food intake. Concentrate on consuming high-fiber foods like beans, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits every day, and get plenty of fluids.
Dealing with Your Diet
The more prepared you are to prepare whole, plant-based foods, the more likely you are to actually do so. If necessary, enlist the help of your friends or family, to be sure you have all the resources you need at your fingertips.
Stock your kitchen with user-friendly equipment, such as a high-powered blender, a rice cooker/steamer, a slow cooker, an automatic can opener, and assorted pots and pans. Fill your pantry, fridge, and freezer with your favorite healthful food options. If someone can help you do your shopping, you can buy more items at once. If not, simply make going to the store a part of your routine to pick up items you need for that day.
To simplify food preparation, keep frozen fruits, vegetables, and brown rice handy at all times. Frozen veggie burgers come in handy for a quick meal. Canned beans without added salt are great to include in at least one meal a day. Also stock your pantry with the following (along with a can opener to assist you):
- Canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, artichokes
- Jars of olives, marinara sauce, salsa, and crushed garlic
- Sprouted whole-grain pasta
- Whole grains (oats, brown rice, quinoa, barley)
- Dried legumes (lentils, beans, peas)
- Raw nuts and seeds and their butters
- Fortified plant-based milks
- Low-sodium vegetable broths and other soup blends
- Condiments such as vinegars, mustards, and ketchup
- Corn or rice cakes
- Whole-grain crackers
When you prepare an extra serving or two to eat the following day, you don’t have to cook every day. Use recipes you’re comfortable with, as long as they’re nutrient-dense. If they’re not, add color and substitute whole-food versions of the original ingredients. For instance, if your favorite dinner is pasta marinara, choose whole-grain pasta and marinara sauce, and stir in chopped broccoli and kale.
Many simple meals don’t take too much time or effort. Keep your focus on easy. To save time, you can buy nutritious prepared foods at your local health food store or restaurant. Always seek out color, especially green, and other items that follow the recommendations in this book. And be sure to choose wisely, because you need to maximize nutrient intake for the least amount of calories to stay healthy.
Dealing with Medicine Mayhem
For many seniors, with the passage of years comes the addition of new medications to the daily regimen. As the chronic conditions pile up, so do the prescriptions. Unfortunately, the vast majority of doctors prefer to assign a condition or symptom to a pill instead of digging into the patient’s lifestyle. When was the last time your doctor asked you what you eat and whether you exercise? If your doctor does that, keep him or her, and refer all your friends!
Polypharmacy, the use of multiple medications, is a risk to your overall health. Many medications interact with other ones by increasing or decreasing the effects or causing side effects. Be sure to tell each one of your healthcare practitioners exactly which pills you’re taking, including any supplements, herbs, tonics, or elixirs. Always keep a list handy when you go to an appointment.
The main reason for this prescription-obsessed epidemic is that medical schools teach how to find the perfect pill to fix or at least quiet the symptom. Major changes to medical school curriculum, government regulations, and separation of drug companies from physician education are critical. Until these changes come to fruition, you have to look out for yourself. Doing things like reading this book and implementing our recommendations will help your lifespan and your healthspan.
Please know that medical care is extremely advantageous—especially in certain situations— but there’s a whole world out there beyond pill popping and symptom soothing. If your body is reacting with high blood pressure, for example, something bigger is wrong, and you need to address the issue. Most of the time, a majority of indications are diet related and can be alleviated by switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet.
Certain medications interact with foods. A common example is the drug warfarin (brand name, Coumadin) and vitamin K. Warfarin is a drug commonly prescribed to thin the blood and prevent clotting. Vitamin K naturally helps the liver make blood-clotting factors. Taking warfarin prevents the liver from taking this action. You might be wondering how this interaction affects you if you’re taking this medication. Consistency in your vitamin K consumption is vitally important. If you eat too many vitamin K–rich foods, you decrease the effect of the warfarin. Conversely, if you eat fewer vitamin K–rich foods, you increase the blood-thinning effect of warfarin.
Leafy green vegetables are the highest in vitamin K. Kale has the most, with 547 micrograms per cup, raw. Spinach, collard greens, broccoli, and chard are also rich sources. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat these foods if you take warfarin; just maintain a consistent amount every day to prevent fluctuations in the effectiveness of the drug.
Here are some other points to consider with respect to medications:
- All drugs have side effects.
- Be vocal with your physician about any reactions you have to your medications, to ensure your dose and the type of drug is appropriate.
- Bring up diet with your doctor, and ask if you need to be concerned about any food-drug interactions with your current prescriptions.
As you transition to a whole food, plant-based diet, be sure you tell your doctor to supervise your medications carefully. Most people reduce or eliminate their need for their meds as their body naturally begins to heal. With drugs such as those that lower insulin or blood pressure, not monitoring carefully can be life-threatening. For example, changing your diet helps lower your blood pressure. If you remain on the dosage you started with, your blood pressure can end up too low and cause you to pass out.
The good news is that if you and your doctor are vigilant about monitoring and following the guidelines presented in this book, you have a good chance of getting off your current medications.
The Least You Need to Know
- Eating a whole food, plant-based diet and exercising regularly can help ward off chronic illnesses and physical disabilities common in the later years.
- Nutrient density is critical to your diet later in life. Metabolism slows naturally, but you still need to consume all the necessary nutrients.
- Slow the aging process by eating efficiently—high amounts of micronutrients with fewer macronutrients.
- Micronutrient needs for vitamin B6, vitamin D, and calcium increase after age 50. Seniors also must be vigilant about getting adequate vitamin B12 consistently.
- Tell all your healthcare practitioners about all the medications and supplements you take, and ask about possible interactions, including potential reactions with foods.
- If you’re transitioning to a whole food, plant-based diet after being on medication (especially meds that lower insulin or blood pressure), have your doctor monitor you closely for any needed adjustments.