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Study: Diet quality of seniors worsens with age

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Seniors can add diet to the list of things that often get worse with age.

A new study found diet declines as the years pass in people over 65, with nearly two-thirds of seniors following a poor diet (JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5[3]:e221880).

The cross-sectional study, published in JAMA Open Network, found overall diet quality deteriorated from 2001 to 2018 among U.S. adults over age 65. By the end of the nearly 20-year study, the proportion of older adults with a poor diet quality significantly increased, while the proportion with an intermediate diet quality significantly decreased.

Notable changes in consumption included a decrease in servings of fruits and vegetables, from 3.90 to 2.49 servings per day. Average fruit intake decreased by 37.1%, including decreases in juice and whole fruit consumption. Average vegetable intake, excluding potatoes, decreased by 50.8%.

Researchers also noted an increase in saturated fat intake and a decrease in whole grains intake (paired with an increase in refined grains intake).

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the population of people 65 and over has increased rapidly in recent years, driven by the aging Baby Boomer population. By 2030, 1 in 5 Americans is projected to be at least age 65.

Importantly, diet plays a key role in health and quality of life in later years.  

The study tapped into demographic and dietary data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2001 to 2018 to examine the diet quality and nutrition patterns of 10,837 U.S. adults age 65 or older. Dietary data was gathered during the NHANES Dietary Interview Component, which is completed during each NHANES 2-year cycle and asks participants to recall the foods and beverages they consumed during the 24-hour period prior to the interview.

The study spanned nine NHANES 2-year cycles.

Diet was assessed using the American Heart Association (AHA) diet score, which measures diet quality according to five components: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and shellfish, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium. A secondary score also measured nuts, seeds and legumes.

Participants were assigned to either a poor, intermediate or ideal AHA diet score based on their self-reported diets.

According to the primary AHA score, the proportion of seniors with a poor diet quality significantly increased from 50.9% to 60.9%, while the proportion with an intermediate diet quality significantly decreased from 48.6% to 38.7%. The proportion of older adults with ideal diet quality remained consistently low.

The mean secondary AHA score also decreased by 8.4%.

“Determinants of healthy eating behavior are complex and multifaceted among older adults,” the researchers wrote, pointing to potential hurdles such as social isolation and food insecurity as cause for poor dietary patterns among older people. “Future research is needed to explain the decreasing trend in diet quality among older adults, which would inform the development of public health and nutrition policies and interventions for promoting healthy eating.”

Rachel Adams joined Informa’s Health & Nutrition Network in 2013. Her career in the natural products industry started with a food and beverage focus before transitioning into her role as managing editor of Natural Products INSIDER, where she covered the dietary supplement industry. Adams left Informa Markets in 2019.

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