Ageing is, in the biological sense, the ‘accumulation of a wide variety of molecular and cellular damage over time’. However, this process occurs differently in everyone, and the effects are varied and multi-faceted. Diet, exercise, exposure to pollutants, stress, smoking, access to healthcare and the quality of social support systems all have an impact on how a person ages and how they cope with ageing. While some degree of decline is inevitable as age increases, the overwhelming majority of evidence shows that maintaining healthy habits into old age can slow the ageing process and help prevent infirmity and frailty. Here, I will be looking specifically at the implications of age for gut health, and how boosting gut health in the elderly may also promote general wellbeing.
When it comes to diet and the digestive system, the elderly face specific issues which may become more acute as they grow older. In particular, ageing and malnutrition often become cyclical: frailty increases the risk of malnutrition, and malnutrition accentuates frailty. Older people generally move less and require fewer calories (as well as having a decreased appetite overall). They may also suffer from other age-related problems such as poor oral health, which decreases enjoyment of food, limits the ability to chew properly, and can therefore lead to limited intake of essential nutrients. However, nutritional needs in the elderly remain the same as any other healthy adult. Indeed, as the elderly are known to suffer from an increased risk of nutritional deficiencies due to a variety of biological and lifestyle influences, maintaining a healthy diet full of nutrient-dense foods becomes especially important, and can hold back some of the negative effects of ageing.
In addition to the fact that adequate nutrient intake in older populations is often limited, some research also suggests that nutritional uptake (i.e. obtaining nutrients from the digestion process) may itself be impaired in the guts of older populations. It is known that secretions of digestive enzymes from the pancreas decrease with age, both in concentration and volume, which may inhibit nutrient absorption and further contribute to malnutrition. Digestive enzymes are molecules that break down food into constituent parts so that nutrients can be absorbed and used by the body. If digestive enzymes are present in insufficient quantities, digestion becomes difficult and the full nutritional value of food cannot be unlocked, which can lead to malnutrition. While more research is needed into the complex biology of the ageing gut, what is known is that the consumption of nutrient-rich foods is paramount for the elderly in order to prevent malnutrition, which can severely impact other health indicators and overall quality of life.
Fermented foods in particular are an ideal diet supplement, as they are incredibly nutrient-rich and have been shown to increase the bioavailability of nutrients. Bioavailability increases the nutritional value of foods by displacing anti-nutrients bound to nutrients, thereby making essential nutrients easier to absorb. By being both high in nutritional content and easily-digestible, fermented foods can be a valuable addition to an elderly person’s diet.
Other studies have also attempted to examine the implications of fermented food consumption on the microbiomes of the elderly. Fermented foods are rich in probiotics, which have been correlated with improved digestion and possible improvements in other health indicators. Much more research is needed into the relationship between gut flora and overall health, but some studies have correlated the consumption of fermented dairy products and reduced rates of various infections. Scientists are still discovering exactly why, leading to a number of theories, but one study found that foods high in lactic acid bacteria (such as fermented foods) produce a different type of acid in the gut, which binds to immune receptors and triggers an immune response. There may also be other factors at play, but the effect is the same: fermented foods are associated with increased immune function for those who eat them. The implications for the elderly, who typically suffer from a weakened immune system and increased susceptibility to infection, are therefore very important.
Research is continuing into the positive effects of fermented food consumption in the elderly, and may yet throw up more interesting correlations. Nevertheless, regularly adding fermented food to the diets of the elderly will provide increased nutrition and possible immune benefits, which are extremely important factors for healthy ageing. Fermented products like those in the Bodkin’s range are a tasty, convenient way to add a regular dose of fermented produce into the diet and for people of all ages to reap the rewards of a more healthy gut.
Article by Seb Fagan
Image: Teo Romera (Flickr)