As the percentage of older adults in the United States continues to grow, so, too, does the focus on maintaining their health and vitality to enable them to care for themselves and actively contribute to their families and communities. Older adults’ perceptions of their own health can play an important role in healthy aging and their perceptions can be affected by a variety of factors, including having a purpose in life, meaningful connections with others, physical activity, and balanced stress levels.
Interestingly, these same factors align with the domains identified as a framework for quality-of-life survey instruments used in social science and health research. The World Health Organization defines quality of life as an “individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns.”
One key component to maintaining or improving quality of life for older adults is nutrition, yet it is often overlooked. Eating nutritious foods that provide the proper nutrients and calories gives older adults the strength and energy they need to live independently. Good nutrition also supports exercise and continued participation in community organizations, which further builds mental and physical health. In addition, food brings pleasure, and eating is a valuable social activity. Critical social connections are fostered through the shared experience of eating a meal together, whether at home or away.
Research has shown that eating in a group can increase energy intake in older adults and, people who eat with others are at lower risk of metabolic syndrome. These findings are particularly important in maintaining the quality of life of older adults who are at higher risk of malnutrition.
Nutrition interventions can help improve the quality of life for older adults who are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition, as shown by a recent study of older adults in Colombia. This study provided education and counseling on nutrition and exercise as well as oral nutrition supplements for 60 days to more than 600 older adults with or at risk of malnutrition. Following the intervention, 45% of participants reported an increase in overall quality of life. Additionally, patients whose nutrition status improved more often reported improved physical functioning.
A separate study of older adults in China also found improvements in health and quality of life, when 192 adults older than age 60 were given oral nutrition supplements in addition to their regular meals. After 90 days, the participants reported significant improvements in all aspects of quality of life including body pain, social function, emotional function, and mental health. These studies illustrate that appropriate nutrition interventions are valuable tools for improving the quality of life of older adults.
Given the significance of good nutrition to improving or maintaining physical function and quality of life, consideration should be given to promoting good nutrition across the lifespan as a foundation for healthy aging and sustainable development. Resources are available to help family/caregivers as well as healthcare professionals to identify malnutrition in older adults in their care and intervene appropriately. Researchers and policy-makers should also apply available quality-of-life instruments when studying nutrition interventions and policies to get a complete view of patient impact. Successfully addressing the nutrition of older adults is important to helping them live healthy, fulfilling, high quality lives as they age.
Kirk W. Kerr, PhD, is senior manager Health Economics, at Abbott Nutrition, a division of Abbott.
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