RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

  HEALTH AND FOOD  -  A look at what the elderly eat

Around 20% of the European population is aged over 60. By 2020, this will have climbed to 25%, including around 30 million octogenarians. This is why combining health and longevity is now a priority for society. One notable way of achieving this is by adapting diet to the ageing process. A number of European research projects are now approaching this question from various angles.

"What we eat is a complex subject. Its significance goes far beyond meeting physical needs, and a great many social interactions come into play.” Eating a meal while watching television, for example, is also a way of not feeling so lonely.
"What we eat is a complex subject. Its significance goes far beyond meeting physical needs, and a great many social interactions come into play.” Eating a meal while watching television, for example, is also a way of not feeling so lonely.
Health and diet are linked from birth, and needs vary with age. Yet the precise dietary needs of the elderly are still largely unknown. "The influence of diet on the ageing process – in particular the ability to absorb energy and the role of antioxidants – warrants much more in-depth study. New diets should be developed that meet the nutritional needs of the elderly while taking into account the practicalities of acquiring the ingredients, their availability in convenient packaging and reasonable cost,” explains Rosanna D'Amario, of the Research DG’s Food Quality Unit.

"What we eat is a complex subject. Its significance goes far beyond meeting physical needs and a great many social interactions come into play. For elderly people, for example, who no longer work and often live alone, buying food or sharing a meal is a way of remaining in contact with their community, their friends and family,” explains Margaret Lumbers, of Surrey University (UK), Coordinator of the European project Food in later life. 

This major survey, conducted in eight European countries, sought to determine how elderly people – divided into two groups (65-74 and over 75) – choose, acquire and store their food, how they prepare their meals and what significance they attach to them, and also how they judge community services in this field. 

The weight of change
All these indicators made it possible to assess the impact of socio-economic situations (solitude, home life, supply organisations) as well as habits on the type of diet. “Changes, such as death of a partner or health problems, can have a profound effect on the diet of certain people, in particular their motivation to prepare meals, or even to eat,” believes Margaret Lumbers. “Another example is the prevalence – which can be as high as 85% – of deficiencies in energy-giving proteins among elderly people placed in hospital care,” explains Rosanna D’Amario.

Sensorial changes which affect elderly people are another reality that must be taken into account. The HealthSense Choice project, coordinated by the University of Cork (Ireland), studied how physiological changes – to the senses of taste, smell and touch – or psychological and cognitive factors influence the appetite. The aim was to arrive at proposals for more attractive diets adapted specifically to this section of the population.

The ability to digest food also diminishes over time and this too can result in deficiencies in certain nutriments that can be crucial to combating problems linked to advancing age, such as loss of bone density, neuronal degeneration or the weakening of immune defences. These are all factors that raise questions concerning how to adjust diet to ensure intake of these essential elements and what diets should be recommended. At the same time, there remains the fundamental question of knowing what elderly Europeans actually eat and the impact of their diet on their health. 

These are all questions asked by the EPIC-Elderly study, coordinated by Athens University and conducted among people aged over 60 recruited from participants in a more general European survey on diet and cancer(1). Dietary habits, socio-economic status, lifestyle and the physical characteristics of more than 100 000 residents from nine countries were studied and compared with their state of health and eventual appearance of chronic diseases or fatalities. 

Mediterranean diet
"There are two major dietary types in Europe,” explains Antonia Trichopoulou, the Project Coordinator. “One is rich in sugar and fats, and is typical of Northern Europe, whereas elderly people in Southern Europe have a diet based on fruit and vegetables.” When influences linked to gender, education, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption are eliminated, there is no doubt that the ‘Mediterranean’ diet (a lot of fruit, vegetables, cereals, fish and olive oil, not too much cheese or wine, very little ‘junk’ food) has beneficial effects on health and longevity. Researchers have developed an evaluation tool that enables anyone to compare what they eat with this ‘ideal’ diet.

The results of this research, as well as of other European projects on the diets of the elderly, are of interest to the health policy-makers as well as to food producers and distributors, consumer groups and healthcare professionals. This is why, under the Fifth Framework Programme, the Fair-Flow network was charged with bringing together and disseminating the results of these various studies, in particular by way of meetings and publications aimed at the various players. A report on diet and ageing was also published under the aegis of Frankie Robinson of the British Nutrition Foundation.

With 32 European partners, including research centres, companies and NGOs, the Nutri-sense network is continuing this work under the Sixth Framework Programme. The objective remains the same: to coordinate European research on the diet of elderly people, take stock of the current state of knowledge, and promote policies and products adapted to the nutritional needs of this section of the population. 

(1) The EPIC-Elderly NAH project, more specifically devoted to illnesses of old age, will continue until 2008. 

  Some specific projects  
  In addition to major studies of a more general nature, the EU funds studies on specific pathologies or nutriments that are of particular significance for elderly people. 

Osteoporosis, or the loss of bone density, is one condition that is inevitable with advancing years, affecting post-menopausal women in particular. Vitamin D is known to facilitate the assimilation of calcium, thereby slowing loss of bone matrix. This is why the Optiford project, coordinated by the Danish Institute for Dietary and Veterinary Research, is interested in the presence of this molecule in the diet and bodies of elderly Europeans (among other risk groups). A special bread enriched with vitamin D is being developed with this in view. 

An impaired ability to digest food is another reason for nutriment deficiencies, in addition to causing problems of discomfort during the passage of food through the body and the risk of serious diseases that can result, such an increased risk of colon cancer. Coordinated by the Institut national de la recherche agronomique in Jouy-en-Josas (FR), the Crownalife project is studying the intestinal micro flora that are essential to digestion. Surveys have been conducted among two groups of Europeans (aged 20-25 and over 65) to try and measure the effect on health of ingesting a direct supplement of intestinal bacteria of the bifidus variety.  

Lipidiet, as its name would suggest, is devoted to dietary lipids and their possible role in protecting against neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s and others), while Vitage is concerned with vitamins C and E as well as carotenoids that prove beneficial against oxidative stress. This stress is linked to a number of illnesses in which age is a factor, such as cancers, neuronal disorders, cardiovascular and eye diseases. The Zincage project also looks at oxidative stress, but from the perspective of zinc deficiencies. It seems that zinc could slow down the weakening of immune defences. 


  European projects