What Is Healthy Aging?
The World Health Organization defines healthy aging as "the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age." In simple terms, the goal of healthy aging is not only to live longer, but also to enjoy life as much as possible in your later years.
One way to think about aging is on a cellular level. When you're young, your body efficiently replaces old cells with new cells. But you eventually reach cellular senescence, a state in which old cells aren't replaced as quickly and begin to deteriorate nearby cells, causing you to age.
Your lifestyle choices, including what you eat, can affect this cellular-level aging process.
How Does Aging Affect a Woman's Body?
At the onset of menopause, around 45 to 55 years old, muscle mass, bone mass and collagen in a woman's body start to decline rapidly — a decade or so earlier than they do for men. Women may experience any of the following bodily changes:
- Joint health: Up to 23% loss of cartilage1
- Bone mineral density: Up to 10% decline2
- Skin health: Up to 30% loss of structural proteins3
- Muscle health: Up to 8% loss of muscle mass per decade4
Research indicates that nutritional deficiency can exacerbate these declines, but eating nutritious foods and maintaining an active lifestyle can help reduce them. Aging well is possible and can foster a better quality of life and more independent living.
Nutrition for Older Adults: 5 Nutrition Tips for Healthy Aging
Nutrition is one of the most important factors for healthy aging. Several nutrients are crucial to maintain joint, bone, skin and muscle health. Focus on getting the recommended amounts of the following nutrients to help keep your body going strong well into your golden years:
1. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a crucial nutrient for bone health, which is especially important as women age. It's key for building bone, as it promotes calcium absorption. One meta-analysis found that daily vitamin D and calcium supplementation reduced the risk of hip fracture in older adults by 16%.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin D is 15 micrograms for women ages 51 to 70 years old and 20 micrograms for women older than 70. Older adults are more likely to be deficient because aging skin has a more difficult time making Vitamin D from sunlight. They may also spend less time outdoors than younger adults and use sunscreen as recommended by healthcare professionals, which means they have less natural exposure to the vitamin.
Vitamin D can be challenging to get through food alone. Your body makes it through sunlight, but it's also found in fortified milk and juice, egg yolks and fatty fish such as salmon and sardines. If you have trouble meeting your vitamin D needs through food, talk with your doctor about a supplement.
Estrogen is an essential hormone for bone remodeling — the process of new bone tissue replacing old bone tissue — and decreased estrogen levels during menopause can lead to rapid bone mineral density loss. As such, women are at higher risk of developing osteoporosis due to these hormonal shifts.
Calcium is required for muscles to function well, and it's one of the mineral building blocks that gives bones their structure and strength. The RDA for calcium for women ages 51 and older is 1,200 milligrams. Adequate calcium, along with vitamin D, is critical for long-term protection against post-menopausal bone mineral loss. Research found that higher calcium intake in women over 60 years old was positively associated with increased lumbar bone mineral density compared to those with lower calcium intake.
Few foods are considered excellent sources of calcium. Dairy products are a good choice — three servings can come close to the RDA — but not all dairy has equal amounts of the mineral. Dairy milk, for example, usually has far more calcium than yogurt. Including more calcium-rich foods or adding vitamin D and calcium supplements to your healthy eating plan may help to mitigate bone density loss associated with lowered estrogen levels.
Protein is necessary to maintain muscle mass and reduce age-related muscle loss. Health experts recommend a daily intake of 0.5 grams to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight (e.g., a minimum of 75 grams for a 150-pound woman). It's notable, however, that some studies on lean muscle mass and strength in older adults suggest improved outcomes among those who consume more protein than the recommended daily amount.
For example, one study found that people with higher protein intake were more likely to maintain physical function over the span of two decades than those with lower protein intake. This positive association was especially evident in women.
Many older adults don't consume enough protein on a daily basis due to a lack of appetite, dental issues, dysfunctional taste buds and trouble swallowing. In addition, metabolic rates decline as you age, meaning you need fewer calories. These combined factors can reduce the quality of nutrition for older adults. You can help support your muscle health as you age by getting plenty of lean protein from poultry, fish, dairy, soy foods, beans and legumes.
HMB, or beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate, is a small molecule the body naturally produces when it metabolizes the amino acid leucine, found in foods such as dairy products, soybeans, beef and chicken.
HMB works to slow muscle breakdown. One study found that HMB supplementation in combination with resistance exercise was an effective strategy for helping to reduce muscle wasting and maintain or improve muscle mass in older populations.
While HMB is found in some foods in trace amounts, it's hard to get the beneficial effects of HMB through food alone. That's why a nutritional supplement that includes HMB and protein can be a good way to support muscle health.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and the main component of connective tissues, such as tendons, ligaments, bones and joints. It's found in animal meats, including brisket, steak, bone broth and gelatin. It's also available as a supplement in the form of collagen peptides (collagen that's been broken into fragments), which have been shown to stimulate a variety of connective and structural tissues regardless of the type or source of collagen.
In addition to reducing wrinkles and improving skin elasticity and hydration, researchers are looking at collagen's potential to alleviate joint pain. One systematic review of 15 randomized controlled trials found collagen peptide supplementation beneficial for reducing joint pain and improving joint mobility, though more research is needed on collagen's long-term benefits.
Aging well isn't a myth. By staying active and making informed choices about the foods you eat, you can help support a healthy aging process and live better longer.
1. Mosher, T.J., et al. Arthritis & Rheumatology. 2004; 50: 2820-28. doi: 10.1002/art.20473
2. Finkelstein, J.S., et al. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2008; 93: 861-68. doi: 10.1210/jc.2007-1876
3. Affinito, P., et al. Maturitas. 1999; 33: 239-47. doi: 10.1016/s0378-5122(99)00077-8
4. Volpi, E., et al. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2004; 7: 405-10.