Your body’s needs change as you age – bringing different health concerns with it. Nutritionist Ravinder Lilly reports on some common health concerns in people over 50, and what you can do to reduce your risk.
Health concern: Osteoporosis
Healthy habit – exercise three hours each week
Fifty-six per cent of women and 29 per cent of men over the age of 60 suffer a fracture because of osteoporosis. But you can start to make a difference to your bone health with exercise.
One Canadian study found that when sedentary post-menopausal women exercised for at least three hours per week, they significantly cut their risk of developing osteoporosis. That’s because bones are like muscles – they can strengthen with use or weaken if they’re not challenged.
- Schedule in at least 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise (that’s exercise where you ‘pound’ the ground such as walking, or exercise that requires you to use weights as a source of resistance) each day. This strengthens the bones by triggering a chemical reaction that encourages bone-building cells to grow.
- Make calcium-rich foods such as dairy products and/or calciumfortified soy products, a daily part of your diet – research from the UK’s University of Sheffield found that adding 600ml trim milk to women’s daily food intake led to a significant increase in bone mineral density over 12 months.
- If you can, get outdoors – sunlight stimulates vitamin D production, which aids calcium absorption and helps boost bone strength.
Health concern: Breast cancer
Healthy habit – make alcohol a ‘treat’, not a necessity
Many of us think nothing of a glass or two of wine with dinner – but alcohol has been linked to breast cancer, so cutting down how much you drink may go a long way towards reducing your risk.
Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in the US looked at the drinking habits of almost 90,000 women. They found that those who had seven or more drinks a week were nearly twice as likely to develop the cancer once they reached menopause. In fact, 80 per cent of breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women aged over 50. The researchers aren’t certain why alcohol seems to affect tumour development but other studies suggest that it may be because alcohol increases body levels of hormones, such as oestrogen, which in turn can raise breast cancer risk.
- Practise treating alcohol like a ‘treat’ food, just as you would with deep-fried foods, cake or other indulgences. Enjoy it in small portions, find healthier substitutes (for example, light beer, low-alcohol wine or something entirely alcoholfree) and schedule in some dedicated alcohol-free days.
- To further reduce your risk of breast cancer, aim for 45-60 minutes of physical activity five or more days a week, keep your weight in the healthy BMI range, and, of course, stub out the smoking habit.
Health concern: Failing eyesight
Healthy habit – dish up fish at least once a week
Recent research from the University of Sydney looked at the effects of diet on the risk of developing Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) in nearly 2,500 adults. AMD is the leading cause of blindness among older adults in the developed world. The results showed that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids (from oily fish, nuts, and olive oil) and low in trans fats (from processed foods) cuts the risk of developing this sight-robbing disease. In fact, people who ate just one serving of fish every week had a 31 per cent lower risk of developing AMD.
- If you want to expand your omega-3-rich fish intake beyond salmon, you can also try using tarakihi, kahawai, mussels or sardines. Homemade fish cakes, crumbed fish fingers and curries are also good ideas for ‘sneaking’ more fish into your diet – or try flaked, cooked fish puréed with natural yoghurt, reduced-fat cream cheese and herbs for a healthy dip you can serve with crusty bread and raw vege crudités.
Health concern: High cholesterol
Healthy habit – eat legumes every other day
Low in fat, high in fibre and easy on the wallet, legumes (peas, beans and lentils) are a worthwhile addition to your diet.
In a study of almost 10,000 men and women in the US, those who ate legumes four or more times a week had a 22 per cent lower risk of heart disease than people who ate legumes less than once a week. Another smaller study published in the Journal of Lipid Research found that including 120g beans (about one cup) daily significantly lowered blood cholesterol levels. Why? Because the soluble fibre legumes contain acts like a sponge, mopping up harmful cholesterol and helping it to exit the body.
- Toss a handful of legumes into salads, stir into stews, casseroles, sauces and Indian curries, mix into rissoles, meatballs or patties.
Health concern: Type 2 diabetes
Healthy habit – eat at least 1 cup of cooked, leafy green veges (or 1 1/2 cups uncooked) each day
To cut your risk of diabetes by up to 14 per cent says research published in the British Medical Journal.
- Pile leafy greens into sandwiches, add to warm and cold pasta dishes, stir through curries and stews just before serving, stuff into omelettes and go for leafy greens in salads.
As a general rule, the darker the leaves, the more nutrients they contain, so replace iceberg and other pale varieties of lettuce with darker coloured watercress, spinach or kale.
Health concern: Diminishing brain power
Healthy habit – have 1/2 cup of blueberries each day
In one study, researchers at Reading University (UK) gave volunteers a blueberry-rich smoothie for breakfast, while another group got a smoothie minus the blueberries.
Their ability to concentrate on mental tasks was measured and results showed that the blueberry-breakfasters performed mental tasks much more effectively well into the afternoon, compared with the non-blueberry-based breakfasters.
In a US study, researchers showed that adding blueberries to the diet of older rats for eight weeks resulted in the maintenance – and rejuvenation – of brain cells. Scientists believe that the benefits come from potent antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory chemicals which stimulate blood and oxygen flow to the brain.
- Add them to breakfast cereals, blend with other fruits and low-fat yoghurt for a delicious smoothie, or stir into puddings.