Food for thought

Diet and nutrition dramatically impact how we age. A Boulder County panel wants to share that information with seniors.

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Christopher J. Flynn/Wikimedia Commons

For as much talk as there is about eating healthy, and the benefits that come to our bodies, minds and lives when we do so, we certainly don’t talk enough about ensuring people continue to have access to good food as they grow older.

It’s a shame, too, because as we age, our dietary needs change, but there isn’t that much information readily available to seniors explaining their new needs. And that’s important because there are specific dietary choices people can make later in life that have been proven to help limit the effects of certain diseases and prevent others.

It’s because of this void that Boulder County is hosting a panel on March 13 with local food researchers, nutritionists and medical professionals. The goal is to share some basic tips, but also to inform seniors of all the food assistance options they have in Boulder County, and to reduce the stigma of asking for help.

“One of the major challenges is that older adults and caregivers may not be aware of the variety of resources that can help them stay healthier and independent,” says Teresa DeAnni, the Healthy Aging Programs manager for the Boulder County Area Agency on Aging. “It’s important for older adults and caregivers to be aware of what is available in Boulder County.”

DeAnni points to “an array of services, food banks, Meals on Wheels, community meal sites and other” options for seniors to get fresh, nutritious food, including Community Food Share (a full list is available at bouldercountyhelp.org). DeAnni says many seniors qualify for food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), though “there is a stigma about getting food assistance.”

Indeed, getting healthy food to seniors, let alone providing information about where to access that food, has a lot to do with volition, says Donna Feldman, a registered dietition/nutritionist, who will speak on the County’s panel.

“Boulder County seniors come in all varieties. Most are living independently, making their own decisions about food. I’m not sure the County can impact that,” Feldman says. “If anything, we’re pretty uniquely health-focused here. The main obstacle for some might be the perceived cost of healthy food, but truly you don’t have to shop at Whole Foods or other specialty food stores to find decent, healthful food. … It’s making the right choices that’s the issue.”

We’ve all heard a folk tale similar to this: “My grandfather smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, drank a glass of Scotch every night and lived until he was 102.” Certainly, those people have and continue to exist. And that highlights somewhat of an ongoing debate in the world of senior nutrition. Tom LaRocca, a CU integrative physiologist who will speak on the panel, says science can’t definitively say why some people live longer than others, but there is reason to think diet plays a part.

“There is evidence that longevity may be inherited, but in longevity hot spots — places where many people live long and well — there is no clear genetic reason,” LaRocca says. “Instead, it seems that most people who live long and well in those places have some common behavioral patterns, one of which is eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with limited amounts of meat and processed foods or sweets. But this isn’t proof — just an interesting observation.”

Feldman adds that a reasonably healthy lifestyle combined with a mostly plant-based diet will lower risk for many chronic diseases — from type 2 diabetes to hypertension to several common cancers — while a sedentary lifestyle coupled with a poor diet increases the risk of getting those diseases. But, Feldman says, there are no guarantees in life.

“The converse of the 102-year-old smoking, drinking person is the 60-year-old who ate a pristine diet and exercised faithfully and got cancer anyway,” Feldman says. “The genetic component of life span is significant, but poorly understood. We can only do the best we know how to do, but no guarantees. I think sometimes diet is promoted as a path to longevity, and if someone unexpectedly has a severe medical problem, they’re blamed for failing to eat a sufficient pure diet.”

“Nutritional needs change a bit with aging, and many health problems that arise as we get older are made worse by poor nutrition,” LaRocca adds, “so a healthy diet is extra important as we age.”

Feldman says even though fate plays a part in our health as we age, it’s best to focus on eating a healthy diet and being active younger in life so we don’t let “those disease processes get out of hand.” She adds that there are many “exciting possibilities” being researched at the moment that might determine how changing nutrient intake at various stages of life can affect, specifically, brain function for seniors.

Indeed, research is much clearer that poor dietary habits and brain/cognitive disorders go hand-in-hand. And there is a growing list of diets as a result. The MIND Diet, for instance, a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH (for high blood pressure) diets, is specifically designed to reduce the risk of dementia and decline in brain health. (The diet is high in green, leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, fish and features one glass of wine daily.)

Thus, DeAnni says one large focus of the panel will be on diet’s effect on depression and cognition. Just like eating certain foods will address someone’s high blood pressure, and other diets will address diabetes, proper nutrition can help improve seniors’ moods, keep their brains sharp, and allow them to “be healthier and better able to stay as independent as possible.”

“I hope the audience walks away knowing some things they can do to help them feel better,” DeAnni says. “Depression is not a normal part of aging, and there are ways to address it.”

Though the County and area nonprofits are working to bring good food and good information to seniors, Feldman says one way younger generations can help is by eating healthy, too. In fact, that may be the most effective way to ensure older folks are making the best choices for their diets.

“Convincing people to improve diet? Good luck,” Feldman says. “It has to come from within. … But I would say that if you personally know someone who should improve — friends, family — setting a good example and structuring your interactions with that person to focus on healthy food is a very good strategy.”

‘You’re Brain on Good Food’ panel. Wednesday, March 13, 9 a.m.-noon. Boulder Jewish Community Center, 6007 Oreg Ave., Boulder. Tickets are free, but register at https://bit.ly/2EBbA0b to attend.