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How care homes can tackle age-related nutritional changes

The older adult population is the fastest growing age demographic and is expected to increase by 20 per cent by 2050. Life expectancy is also on the rise, however, despite the increasing lifespan, the ageing population usually requires the most support from both the health and social care sectors.
There are many lifestyle factors that can contribute to healthy ageing. Eating a healthy, balanced diet plays a crucial role in promoting good health and ensuring our daily nutritional targets are met. This is imperative in the ageing population as they’re more susceptible to nutritional deficiencies and are at greater risk of poor absorption of essential vitamins and nutrients. A balanced diet can play a protective role in some age-related conditions such as dental health, and bone and joint health.
The National Diet & Nutrition Survey[1] results showed that fibre, oily fish and fruit and vegetable intakes were all below the recommended intakes in older adults. Additionally, some populations had low intakes of protein, vitamins and minerals – all of which, can significantly impact an individual’s overall health. Dietary needs change with age. As physical activity lessens, energy requirements also decrease. However, if insufficient levels of food are consumed, this can consequently increase an individual’s risk of nutritional deficiencies. 
One of the main physical changes that occurs with age is the change in body composition and metabolism. Physical inactivity can cause muscle fibres to get weaker and accelerate bone loss. As a result, a large proportion of older people in care suffer from physical ailments such as osteoporosis. Calcium-rich foods such as leafy green vegetables, dried fruit and yoghurt can help reduce this risk. Vitamin D also plays a vital role in maintaining healthy bones and teeth as it helps the body absorb calcium. Although our bodies create vitamin D from direct sunlight on our skin, exposure to the sun can be very limited in care homes. Hence, one of the main deficiencies found in the older adult population is vitamin D. It is recommended that older adults increase their consumption of oily fish, red meat, fortified breakfast cereals and fortified yoghurts to combat vitamin D deficiency. This can help keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. Additionally, the Department of Health recommends that individuals with limited exposure to sunlight take daily vitamin D supplements during the winter months.[2]
Our ability to taste also declines as we get older. The process of taste bud regeneration and saliva production slows down with age, consequently impacting one’s enjoyment of meal times. Certain medications can also impact taste. Unfortunately, this can lead to a reduced appetite and the inability to meet daily nutritional targets. It is suggested that individuals seek more flavoursome options containing aromatic ingredients such as garlic, onions, lemon, lime, mustard and a variety of spices to enhance taste perception. Similarly, garnishes can play a significant role in the visual appeal and perception of a meal. It is therefore essential that plate presentation training is provided to care home staff to further stimulate the appetite of residents. Appearance, texture, temperature and dining settings have become all the more important in encouraging care home residents to eat more regularly. Providing a variety of meal options in care homes can help overcome some of these challenges. For example, care homes can hold regular tasting sessions to showcase the variety of options available. Residents in care typically eat a select range of foods which can lack in diversity. By offering frequent tasting sessions, residents have the opportunity to try new meals and expand their dietary profile, whilst providing feedback on their preferences for future menu planning. It is recommended that care homes develop four-week menu cycles rather than two-week menu cycles to prevent menu fatigue. Care homes can also develop themed menus within these menu cycles for specific occasions such as Easter. This can help engage residents during meal times, which can contribute to a better dining experience.
There are many contributing factors to our general health and well-being and ageing is as an inevitable element of this. However, if supplemented correctly, the effects of ageing can be reduced. Increasing awareness around the effects of ageing and how to tackle these changes could provide great benefit to residents and their overall well-being. Although the ageing process can affect people differently, a healthy and varied diet, combined with physical activity is encouraged to help minimise health problems, accelerate recovery and improve an individual’s quality of life.