With vaccines rolling out nationwide, there is reason for renewed hope as we turn a corner in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. One factor often not considered, but which could help support vaccine effectiveness, is good nutrition. Here are several important reasons to continue to focus on older adult nutrition:
Good nutrition is critical for immunity. It supports the body’s ability to respond to an immune challenge, whether the challenge is exposure to a new virus or a new vaccine. Thus, it is not surprising that vaccines may be less effective in stimulating an immune response in those who are undernourished. Nutrition is one of the external factors recognized as potentially impacting immunosenescence, which is the gradual deterioration of our immune system as we get older. It has been proposed that “correction of nutritional deficits may attenuate the age-dependent alterations of the innate and adaptive immune system which participate in the increased susceptibility and worse outcome observed in elderly COVID-19 patients.”
Malnutrition—particularly lack of adequate protein—disproportionately affects older adults. The National Blueprint: Achieving Quality Malnutrition Care for Older Adults, 2020 Update notes that up to one of two older adults is either at risk of malnutrition or is malnourished. Contributors that can lead to malnutrition in older adults include disease-associated risk factors, function-associated risk factors, social and mental health risk factors and hunger and food insecurity risk factors.
COVID-19 has likely further compounded malnutrition risk for older adults. The pandemic has intensified social isolation, which can have serious consequences—including nutrition concerns, particularly for frail older adults. Other pandemic-related factors include disparities and food insecurity, which, along with social isolation may impact food access and diet quality. Yet, food access and food security are critical for older adults to have a healthy diet.
‘Vitamins A and D can be important in helping regulate the immune system’
Government and community nutrition programs can benefit older adults. Several of these programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and congregate and home-delivered nutrition services supported by the Older Americans Act have received increased funding through federal COVID-19 legislation.
Supporting Good Nutrition in Older Adults
The newest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) 2020–2025 remind us that selecting healthy food and beverages is important for older adults, regardless of their race or ethnicity or current health status, and that “it is never too late to make improvements.” The advice is important for good immune health too, as described in this infographic, which highlights key nutrients supporting immune health, including:
- Protein: many older adults do not eat enough protein and the DGAs note that older adults older than age 70 often fall short of meeting protein recommendations.
- Vitamins: multiple vitamins are needed to keep the body healthy and vitamins A and D can be important in helping regulate the immune system. Also there is some evidence that Vitamin D may play a role in the body’s immune response to respiratory viruses. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants that can help protect cells, including immune cells, from damage.
- Minerals: multiple minerals are needed for health, for example zinc helps create new immune cells and may help reduce infections.
Older adults with poor food intake or who have compromised health may need additional support to meet their nutrition needs. Oral nutritional supplements can provide protein, vitamins and minerals that help maintain immune health. Older adults (and their families/caregivers) can talk to healthcare providers to find out more about how such nutritional supplements may be a benefit.
Good nutrition for our nation’s older adults is now more critical than ever and presents an opportunity for ASA members to help reinforce the importance of a healthy diet and connect older adults and their families/caregivers to community-based nutrition services.
Author’s note: More information is available on COVID-19 and nutrition through Abbott and its Abbott Nutrition Health Institute. The Abbott Nutrition Health Institute is committed to being the world’s leading provider of therapeutic nutrition education resources for every stage of life.
Mary Beth Arensberg, PhD, RDN, LDN, FAND, is director of Health Policy and Programs at Abbott Nutrition, a division of Abbott.