Home Physical Health Healthier diet may help you head off dementia, other diseases of aging

Healthier diet may help you head off dementia, other diseases of aging

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Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I ate what a lot of other kids ate — ravioli from a can, frozen dinners, stuff we’d rightly call junk today. My strict diet meant eating whatever I wanted.

Young adulthood was little better, but in the 1980s I became a father twice over, and it dawned on me that I should try to eat better. I wasn’t perfect, though. I still routinely feasted until my stomach ballooned taut enough to pop.

As I approached 50, my body started whispering warnings to me: I suffered backaches and a hernia, and I grew a paunch that deeply offended my vanity. Thanks to such insults to the system, I took the hint and changed my diet. Today, at 71, I’m glad I made the shift.

“The elephant in the room is that older people require much fewer calories,” says Susan B. Roberts, senior associate dean of foundational research at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. “We exercise less, our metabolism slows, and taste acuity declines. Every five or 10 years, we should ask ourselves, ‘How can I keep enjoying healthy food even when I’m eating smaller amounts?’”

“As you get older, something has to give,” she adds. “Now is the time to change your habits and lower your risks of chronic disease.”

A ‘nutrition prescription’

A 2021 meta-analysis titled “Healthy Aging — Nutrition Matters: Start Early and Screen Often,” of which Roberts was lead author, concluded, “A cohesive body of research finds that a healthy diet and weight management are able to not only reliably delay the onset of most typical diseases and functional losses in aging, but also arrest progression and severity, and even support remission for some conditions.”

The study recommended routine screenings for “age-related conditions” that can be treated with “a nutrition prescription.” Healthy diets and weight, it noted, are associated with prevention of such diseases of aging as dementia, osteoporosis, urinary incontinence, sleep apnea and constipation.

“During the aging process, diet can play a surprisingly major role in one’s vitality and longevity — perhaps even more so than genetics,” Harvard Pilgrim Health Care reported after exploring the eating habits in communities where people live the longest. “Common denominators between food philosophy and consumption point to the intriguing idea that food and diet could be the prescription for a longer life.”

Those common denominators include eating plant-based meals, nuts, and whole, unprocessed foods. In general, researchers recommend eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, plus lean sources of protein such as seafood, dairy and fortified soy alternatives (beans, peas and lentils), while cutting back on saturated fats, sugar and salt.

“There is no one-size-fits-all eating pattern for how people should eat differently as they age,” says Rachel Stahl, a registered dietitian at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Some may find, for example, that they need to eat smaller meals more frequently.”

A study led by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health tracked changes in diet and lifestyle of some 74,000 people for 12 years. They followed mostly people over 60 and published their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The bottom line: Small, gradual improvements in food choices led to a more nutritious diet that, in turn, can lower cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation. It’s also never too late to start eating smart, the study suggests.

Yet the Cleveland Clinic reports that, as one ages, particularly after 65, healthy eating “can become more challenging,” with weight gain a potential result. A slower metabolism, fluctuating hormones, lowered physical activity and digestive issues are among the reasons.

“It can be difficult to change our eating habits on our own,” says Kathryn N. Porter Starr, a registered nutritionist and associate professor of medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine. “Certain key nutrients, such as fiber, are important to prioritize as we age.”

She recommends consulting a registered dietitian nutritionist “who can translate the science of nutrition into practical solutions for you.”

And “choose small goals that can be achieved and sustained,” she adds.

Since turning 50, I’ve taken baby steps toward eating smarter, and I now choose foods more selectively: more fresh vegetables (spinach, carrots, cabbage), more fruit (apples, blueberries, bananas), more fish (salmon, tuna, sardines) and only bread that’s whole wheat. I eat red meat only once or twice a month, skip most sweets, and often snack on yogurt and nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds). My wife, who stays informed about dietary practices, is a big help.

I’ve also trained myself to stop eating well before facing the risk of spontaneous combustion and losing all my self-respect. I eat more slowly. I divide dinner into two courses, taking an intermission of 15 to 30 minutes to let my stomach signal satiety (and prolong the pleasure). I learned a hard-earned lesson from my father. He ate fast, finishing almost before anyone else even started, only to grow seriously overweight in his 50s and die of a massive heart attack at 70.

I’ve improved otherwise, too. I now eat progressively less through the day — as the axiom goes, like a prince at breakfast, a peasant at lunch and a pauper at dinner. I calibrate my consumption to sync up with my energy needs at a given hour. I eat meals early in the day and at regular times (usually about 8 a.m., noon and 7 p.m.) and limit myself to a modest intake of wine and beer — no more hard liquor for me.

My dietary philosophy is basic. Treat food as fuel for function — in effect, as medicine — but also as fun and without being finicky about it.

These days, I feel good. I weigh only about 10 pounds more than in high school. Despite borderline high cholesterol and high blood pressure, for which I take daily medication, I remain vigorous.

So, embrace your appetite for change. Hey, if I can do it, then believe me, so can you.

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