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Food and nutrition in the golden years: hungry for innovation

Caring for the health of people over the age of 65, now 17% of world population, is a growing global challenge. One of the things at stake is reducing the need for long-term care. Ageing is a complex process greatly influenced by the quality of diet throughout a person’s life. On 27 November 2013, CIAG (Le Carrefour de l’innovation agronomique), an INRA symposium on agricultural innovation, addressed the specific nutritional needs of seniors (calorie intake, proteins, calcium, fatty acids, etc.) to anticipate vulnerabilities and promote healthy ageing. Research and innovative projects designed to develop food that responds to these needs were then presented.

The Carrefour de l'innovation agronomique held in Dijon on 27 November 2013 on food and nutrition for seniors © ROCLE Christophe
By Nicole Ladet, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 09/04/2014
Published on 12/06/2013

Although people are living longer around the world, this does not necessarily mean that they are growing old healthy. As life expectancy increases, a whole slew of complications associated with natural ageing can turn into serious health issues: sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass and strength) and osteoporosis increase the risk of fractures (16-fold in women with sarcopenia), sometimes leading to a loss of autonomy. Fractures are a factor of abnormally high mortality rates (25%). Undernutrition, detected in 40% of hospitalised patients, usually starts at home and makes people more susceptible to disease. Cognitive degeneration also jeopardises health, often leading to the loss of autonomy and the need for long-term care.

Nevertheless, recent research presented at CIAG in Dijon has shown that this vicious circle is neither inevitable nor completely irreversible. Adequate diet and regular exercise play a major role in preventing age-related diseases; these are the keys to healthy ageing, and to maintaining an optimal quality of life.

Nutritional needs of older people

Metabolism evolves with age, and our bodies do not process essential nutrients as well as they used to. After a period of fasting, older people compensate less well for a loss of protein, whereas their need for protein is 20% higher than that of an adult under 50. Undernutrition is a common cause of frailty, including for sustained cognitive health, as our brains require a steady supply of micronutrients. Walking is also beneficial to health, although our understanding of the importance of a sound muscoskeletal system is fairly recent. Science is beginning to better explain the inextricable link between muscles and bones, and research has shown that the two are in constant dialogue with each other, benefiting from physical activity. Osteoporosis and sarcopenia, characterised by an increase in fat at the expense of muscle and bone tissue, often lead to metabolic disorders. An adequate diet may help prevent these health complications.

Research has shown that vitamin A influences cognitive health over the years. Omega 3 protects against memory loss and age-related inflammation. On the other hand, a diet overly rich in saturated fatty acids shows adverse affects on memory and brain ageing from as early as 50.

Public health issues: mobilising the food industry

Preventing the effects of ageing by way of diet requires thorough knowledge of the specific nutritional needs of older people, but also a better understanding of how other factors come into play: where food comes from; how food is processed, cooked, preserved, transported and consumed; sanitary conditions; taste; social factors, etc. Several findings in these areas were presented at CIAG. For example, healthy seniors tend to process amino acids better if their daily protein requirements come from a midday meal. How food is cooked is also important: meat that is cooked longer is easier to digest, and cooking at low temperatures (not exceeding 70°C) curtails oxidation. Minced meat offers greater bioavailability, is easier to chew, and facilitates the release of iron. Food processing methods can also influence how fast people digest their food: jellified milk products (dairy) promote a feeling of satiety thanks to their texture, but score worse than warm milk when it comes to the bioavailability of amino acids. Improved public health depends not only on a greater awareness of preventive nutrition; food manufacturing and processing industries also have a role to play in providing new and innovating ways to promote health.

Several research projects currently underway at INRA focus on preventive nutrition and improving related food sectors. Four of them were presented at CIAG: pOLIVd3 (1) explores the importance of polyphenols in olive oil and their synergies with vitamin D and essential fatty acids, especially omega 3, which stimulates muscle protein synthesis and protects against bone loss. The epidemiological study SuViMax3 (2) also takes a close look at the effects of an olive oil-based Mediterranean diet, and its anti-inflammatory role in combating Alzheimer’s. The multidisciplinary consortium Nu-Age focuses on the inflammatory theory of ageing by investigating how an appropriate diet – in this, case, also Mediterranean - reduces the risk of inflammation and optimises the quality of life and health of ageing populations. This holistic, pan-European approach aims to lay foundations for developing fortified and targeted foods. The fourth project, Optifel, aims to develop enhanced fruit- and vegetable-based products to respond to the needs of older people. Richer in proteins and energy, they have an appropriate texture, are easy to chew, and release micronutrients more easily.

The Carnot Institute "Qualiment" (in French), supported by INRA, is working to develop these themes and forge industrial partnerships.

(1) pOLIVd3 – study on the impact of ployphenol-rich oil, vitamin D and DHA on the muscoskeletal system, a project funded by the French National Research Agency (ANR) bringing together Auvergne’s research centre for human nutrition, INRA and the industrial technical centre for the food industry (CTCPA).

(2) SuViMax - SUpplémentation en VItamines et Minéraux Anti-oXydants – epidemiological study coordinated by S. Hercberg, UREN (research unit on nutritional epidemiology) Inserm/INRA/Cnam/University Paris 13.

> View the videos of the symposium (in French)

Human intestinal microbiota and inflammation

Recent research has revealed the role of intestinal microbiota (microbial population that colonises the digestive tract) in reducing inflammation. Microbiota fulfils many biological and metabolic functions. It is made up of a vast array of bacteria, including faecalibacterium prausnitzii, seen as a marker of good health, as it tends to reduce inflammation. With age, the stability and diversity of microbiota is compromised, and F. prausnitzii in particular becomes less abundant. These studies show that influencing the composition of intestinal microbiota through diet is an avenue of research and innovation worth exploring, in the interest of promoting the health of seniors.