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Eating for Longevity: How Our Nutrition Needs Change Through the Decades

by | Feb 8, 2021 | EATING/FASTING

Obtaining optimal health is a journey that evolves throughout our lives. What we need to perform our best changes as we move from childhood to adulthood, and even into our later years.

Focusing on developing healthy habits in early life like proper sleep, regular exercise, and a healthy diet can significantly improve your quality of life as you grow older.

Here’s how our nutrition needs change throughout the decades and what you can focus on in your diet to optimize your health, whatever age you are.


Your 20s

The key to longevity is, to begin with developing healthy habits as early as possible. If you haven’t grown up consuming an optimal diet, starting in your early adulthood can help prevent chronic disease and extend your lifespan.

Beginning of Healthy Habits

During your 20s, it is easy to indulge in late-night snacking, fast food, and too much alcohol intake, but be mindful not to go overboard. Habits that we create in our early lives can be difficult to change once we are older, and these patterns are ingrained into our way of life.

A generally healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy, and whole grains is a great place to start with a healthy diet, but there is still more to be considered.

Bone Development

Peak bone mass is typically reached by age 30. Still, it is impacted by controllable factors, including weight-bearing activity, tobacco and alcohol use, body weight, and diet, as well as uncontrollable factors like family history. [1]

Having an adequate intake of calcium is essential for achieving maximum bone mass in early life to prevent early osteoporosis. The current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium in both men and women ages 19-50 years is 1000mg daily. [2]

Vitamin D is necessary for optimal bone health because it promotes calcium absorption in the gut and helps maintain serum calcium and phosphorus concentrations for bone mineralization. The RDA for vitamin D is 600 IU (approximately 15mcg) daily. [3]

Conception

Preconception nutrition is important to consider in men and women who plan to have children in their prime childbearing years.

For women preparing for pregnancy, folate intake, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and iodine should be emphasized due to their roles in a healthy pregnancy. [4] Folate is known to be important in preventing neural tube defects and other congenital disabilities during gestation. The Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intakes recommends that women of childbearing age take a vitamin supplement with 400mcg of folic acid daily. [5]

For women taking hormonal birth control, vitamin and mineral deficiencies may be more likely to occur. In a review of studies examining the effect of oral contraceptives on nutrient levels, several vitamins and minerals were negatively impacted by contraceptive use. The nutrients of major concern are vitamins B2, B6, B12, folic acid, vitamins C and E, magnesium, selenium, and zinc.[6]

Deficiencies of these nutrients are related to increases in the months it takes to conceive and infertility rates in women. [5,6] A study published in the journal Nutrients in 2019 found that women who have lower serum levels of zinc and selenium had a greater relative risk of infertility and a longer time to become pregnant. [7]

Male fertility is also of concern in your 20s and 30s. Very similar to women, male fertility is affected by nutrient deficiency or adequacy. Sperm quality and viability are achieved through sufficient intake of antioxidants and several vitamins and minerals – several important nutrients include manganese, zinc, selenium, magnesium, vitamin E, vitamin E, copper, and sodium. Diets inadequate in these nutrients may contribute to infertility and a prolonged time for conception. [8]

Your 30s

Your nutrition needs in your thirties are very similar to your needs in your twenties—the DRIs for various vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients are roughly the same in these decades. If you are planning to conceive in your thirties, eating healthy to improve fertility can become even more important as pregnancy risks increase as you get closer to 40.[9]

Social and metabolic changes may affect how you choose to fuel your body. Creating more structure with balanced meals and a healthy relationship with food can support chronic disease prevention.

Physical Activity and Caloric Intake

The levels of physical activity you maintained during your twenties may decrease in favor of a greater focus on work or changes in relationships. As a result, a decrease in your caloric intake may be needed to maintain a healthy weight. Excessive caloric intake in the absence of physical activity can likely lead to weight gain and greater fat mass, which may affect your long-term health status.[10]

Your 40s

When you’ve reached your 40s, your body begins to settle into more physiological changes that include fluctuations in hormones, changes in weight, and changes in organ function. If you haven’t started focusing on reducing intake of high-fat, high-salt, and high-calorie foods, now is a great time to start. Decreases in muscle mass can make it more difficult to lose weight, and changes in hormones may also increase the risk for chronic diseases. [11]  

Sarcopenia and Muscle Changes

Every decade after 30 years of age, men and women can lose between 3-8% of muscle.[11] This gradual loss of muscle is known as sarcopenia, and if not managed, it can lead to frailty, disability, and hip fractures later in life. Preventative measures for sarcopenia include physical activity and adequate protein intake. Research supports protein intake of 1-1.2g/kg body weight per day or approximately 25-30g of protein per meal to prevent sarcopenia. [12]

Your 50s

In this period of life, significant hormonal changes begin to occur, and changes in organ function can decrease nutrient absorption, increase nutrient needs, and a greater risk of chronic illness. Decreasing inflammation through diet and increasing nutrient intake is great to focus on in this time of change.

Menopause

Hormonal and other physiological changes during menopause cause changes in nutritional needs for women. Normally, adequate estrogen levels are protective against osteoporosis. Estrogen increases the absorption of calcium and vitamin D. During and after menopause, estrogen production decreases significantly, and the risk of osteoporosis increases. [10,11] Women over 50 should increase calcium intake to 1,200mg daily. [13]

Some women may utilize foods containing the phytoestrogen isoflavone as a way to assist with managing menopausal symptoms. Research supports the effectiveness of soy isoflavones in food or supplements in helping with hot flashes and decreasing bone loss, and may help with cardiovascular health. [15]

B12 Absorption

Decreased vitamin B12 absorption can occur as early as your early 50s, increasing vascular disease risk, certain cancers, and anemia. At this age, up to 30% of adults have atrophic gastritis, an inflammatory condition that destroys the stomach’s cells. [167]

These cells typically produce proteins necessary for the transportation and absorption of B12 in the body. These changes, supplementation, or increased intake of foods containing vitamin B12 such as lean meat, fish, dairy, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast are essential.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause of vision loss and blindness in older age. It occurs when the macula, a region of the retina, is damaged by oxidative stress. In some cases, leaky blood vessels can grow into the retina and also cause vision loss.

The risk for AMD increases at age 50 and progressively becomes more common in older age. Reducing oxidative stress through diet and lifestyle changes can prevent and/or delay the onset of AMD. You can lower risk with increasing intake of foods containing lutein and zeaxanthin (carotenoids found in green leafy vegetables, eggs, and orange/yellow fruits and vegetables), omega-3 fatty acids, and other antioxidant-rich foods with vitamins C and E, zinc, and beta carotene. [17]

Your 60s

In older adulthood (approximately 65 years or older), physiological changes can lead to increased inflammation with simultaneously decreased appetite and nutrient intake, increasing malnutrition risk.  [18]

Reduced Appetite

There are many reasons why older adults may have decreased intake – many of which deal with the physiological changes of getting older. The digestive tract can change significantly in older years, starting in the mouth. For many, tooth loss and poor dentition can significantly impact the variety of foods an older adult can eat.

In the stomach, gastric emptying slows and can prolong satiety, while constipation further reduces appetite. Hormones that trigger satiety responses such as leptin, ghrelin, and cholecystokinin are also higher in older adults and decrease hunger. [19]

Medication use can also contribute to decreased appetite – certain medications may stimulate nausea, decrease the sense of smell or taste, or decrease saliva production. Managing multiple medications can be useful in figuring out the causes of poor appetite. [20]

Older adults often experience significant changes in their social life, which can negatively impact intake and increase the risk for malnutrition. Research shows that individuals who live and eat alone or who have limited support to help with cooking and grocery shopping tend to have decreased intake. Psychological changes such as depression, dementia, or delirium can also reduce appetite if not managed with support. [19]

Given that appetite can be significantly decreased for these reasons, a focus on nutrient-dense foods can help reduce malnutrition risk in older adults. Soft-cooked foods can help increase the variety of nutrient-dense foods available, and maintaining a positive social environment may help with appetite.

Immune System Dysregulation

With age, the immune response in our bodies becomes dysregulated. Levels of certain inflammatory proteins are increased, and the acute inflammatory response can no longer resolve quickly. As a result, low-grade chronic inflammation occurs in various tissues and cells that increase the risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and even cancer. This chronic inflammation increases the need for antioxidant-containing foods in the diet. [16, 18]20

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can help resolve inflammation. Emphasizing fatty fish, flaxseed, nuts, certain plant-based oils, and leafy vegetables in the diet may be beneficial. Healthy microbiota may help assist with inflammation management. [21]

Constipation

Constipation is more likely in older age due to reduced activity, medications, and muscle changes. Research suggests that increasing fiber intake and water can help decrease the frequency of constipation in older adults. According to the Institute of Medicine, dietary fiber intake for men and women over the age of 50 should be at least 30g daily and 21g daily, respectively. If fiber is not a part of your regular diet, gradually increasing intake is recommended to reduce possible gastrointestinal discomfort. Whole grains, vegetables, and fruit are great sources of soluble and insoluble fiber to promote regularity in bowel movements. [21]

Hydration

Thirst perception may be affected by older age, which increases the risk of dehydration. [22] Dehydration can negatively impact mental status, balance, temperature regulation, as well as management of chronic diseases. [2123]

In older adults, rehydration to normal fluid balance may also take longer compared to younger adults, so it is best to have consistent fluid intake. [23] The Institute of Medicine recommends men have an intake of 3.7L of total water daily and women have 2.7L of water (beverage intake of 3L and 2.2L for men and women, respectively). [224]

Your 70s and Beyond

This stage is about the maintenance of nutrition status through healthy habits developed earlier in life, with modifications made for mobility, chewing and swallowing ability, and other age-related physiological changes. At this age, sarcopenia and functional decline can become more prominent if unable to meet protein and energy needs along with exercise.

Most nutrition recommendations for adults in their 60s carry over into ages 70 and beyond. There is an increased need for omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, vitamins B6, vitamin B12, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, and potassium in the diet. Taking a multivitamin in addition to following a nutrient-dense diet can help meet most micronutrient needs. [24]

As in early life, continuing a diet full of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, lean protein, and low-fat dairy can help maintain quality of life.

With a little bit of thought and understanding of nutrition recommendations at each life stage, you can discover the keys to living a long and healthy life.

Read More:

  1. The National Osteoporosis Foundation’s position statement on peak bone mass development and lifestyle factors: a systematic review and implementation recommendation
    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00198-015-3440-3
  2. Calcium fact sheet for health professionals
     https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/
  3. Vitamin D fact sheet for health professionals
    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
  4. The clinical content of preconception care: clinical nutrition and dietary supplements  https://www.ajog.org/article/S0002-9378(08)02076-0/fulltext
  5. The importance of folate, zinc, and antioxidants in the pathogenesis and prevention of subfertility
    https://academic.oup.com/humupd/article/13/2/163/661418
  6.  Oral contraceptives and changes in nutritional requirements
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23852908/
  7. Maternal selenium, copper, and zinc concentrations in early pregnancy and the association with fertility
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6683068/
  8. Diet and nutritional factors in male (in)fertility- underestimated factors  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7291266/
  9. Elevated risks of pregnancy with increased maternal age.
    https://academic.oup.com/humrep/article/22/5/1264/2914098?login=true 
  10. 10.Calorie intake and aging.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851235/ 
  11. Nutrition for sarcopenia  
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4625812/
  12. Muscle tissue changes with aging.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804956 
  13. Effect of estrogen on calcium absorption and serum vitamin D metabolites in postmenopausal osteoporosis
    https://creighton.pure.elsevier.com/en/publications/effect-of-estrogen-on-calcium-absorption-and-serum-vitamin-d-meta
  14. The mechanisms of estrogen regulation of bone resorption
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC381441/
  15. Isoflavone supplements for menopausal women: a systematic review https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6893524/
  16.  Vitamin B12 and older adults
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5130103/
  17. Nutritional and lifestyle interventions for age-related macular degeneration: a review https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5244028/
  18.  Nutrition Concerns for Aging Populations
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK51837/

Author:

Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus

Author, environmental policy expert, and the co-founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute in California. He is a co-author of An Eco-Modernist Manifesto (2015).