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Scientific Updates /

Plant-based eating and healthy ageing

09 March 2022

Type:

Review

Ageing population in the European Union

For the last several decades, European populations have been steadily ageing. This means that the working-age population is shrinking whilst the population of older adults is growing.()

The older population in Europe (>65 years) is expected to rise from 90.5 million at the start of 2019 to 129.8 million by 2050. The number of elderly people aged 85 years or more is predicted to more than double during this time, up to 26.8 million. Women in particular are living longer than ever, with more than twice as many women living to 85 years of age.

The impact of ageing on public health

These changes have huge impacts on society, including public health and social care challenges. Unfortunately, this increased longevity has brought with it increased number of years of ill health, because age is the main risk factor for the majority of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancer, which are the main causes of morbidity and mortality in the developed world.()

In addition to the increased risk of major chronic diseases, older age is also associated with other conditions which, although not life threatening, can have an impact on quality of life of older individuals such as cognitive decline, gastrointestinal disorders (e.g., constipation) and mobility disability as a result of arthritis, osteoporosis and sarcopaenia.

Plant-based diets and healthy ageing

The ageing process can be impacted by lifestyle factors including diet, physical activity and smoking. Research has shown that good nutrition supports a healthier ageing process, resulting in improved quality of life as well as reduced incidence of chronic disease and premature mortality.()

Plant-based diets, characterised by an abundance of plant-based foods and low to moderate amounts of animal products, have been associated with healthier ageing and longevity. On the contrary, poor diet and obesity can increase the risk of developing conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal diseases, and several cancers.()

Suboptimal intakes of plant-based foods such as whole grains, nuts, fruit and legumes is responsible for decreased quality of life in European countries, quantified by Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) due to heart disease, diabetes, stroke and colorectal cancer.() As an example, high adherence to the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet, a healthy plant-based diet, is associated with a 28% lower risk of developing heart disease and 59% lower risk of developing diabetes.()

Nutritional concerns for older adults

Nutritional concerns for older adults are related to both under and over consumption of energy and nutrients. Elderly adults are especially vulnerable to malnutrition as energy requirements decrease with age whilst nutrient requirements are similar to those of younger adults. Particular concerns for older adults in European countries include:()

  • Ensuring adequate protein intake to reduce risk of muscle wasting (sarcopenia) and weakness or frailty

  • Avoiding micro-nutrient deficiencies such as calcium, folate and vitamins B2, B12, D, in particular to support healthy bone mineral density and minimise fracture risk

  • Consuming enough fibre to support bowel function and reduce constipation, a common issue amongst older adults

  • Reducing over-consumption of saturated fat, salt and sugar

How plant-based diets support adequate nutrition in older adults

Healthy plant-based diets, incorporating a wide variety of unrefined plant foods can address these nutritional concerns in older adults by providing adequate plant-based protein as well as a source of unsaturated fatty acids, fibre, vitamins and minerals.()

Plant-based foods also contain bioactive compounds such as polyphenols which have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and have been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Balanced plant-based diets can provide all the essential nutrients to support bone health including calcium, protein and potassium. Plant-based eating has been shown to support normal bone growth and development throughout life, provided a wide variety of plant foods are consumed, and adequate nutrient intakes are maintained.()

In the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey (CLHLS), which included over 13,000 adults aged 65 and over, those with the highest healthy plant-based diet index score had a 17% decreased risk of all-cause mortality, compared to those with the lowest scores.()

Weight management in older adults

Overweight or obesity is also a concern in older adults. In 2019, 65.7% of European adults aged 65-74 years and 60% of adults over 75 years were considered overweight.()

Plant-based eating can help older adults to maintain a healthy weight and body composition as plant-based foods are typically lower in energy density compared to animal products and contain fibre which can help with satiation and prevent excessive calorie intake.

Read more about plant-based eating and weight management

Conclusions

Healthy plant-based diets can support healthy ageing by reducing the risk of chronic disease and premature mortality in older adults. Plant-based eating is just as relevant, if not more so, to the ageing population as it is to the population at large.

References

  1. Eurostat. Ageing europe - statistics on population developments. 2020. Accessed Mar 2022. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Ageing_Europe_-_statistics_on_population_developments#Older_people_.E2.80.94_increasingly_old_and_with_growing_dependency

  2. Navarro-Pardo E, Suay F & Murphy M. Ageing: Not only an age-related issue. Mech Ageing Dev. 2021;199:111568. doi: 10.1016/j.mad.2021.111568

  3. Kehoe L, Walton J, Flynn A. Nutritional challenges for older adults in Europe: current status and future directions. Proc Nutr Soc. 2019;78(2):221-233. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0029665118002744

  4. Malcomson FC & Mathers JC. Nutrition and ageing. Biochemistry and Cell Biology of Ageing: Part I Biomedical Science. Subcellular Biochemistry. Volume 90. Springer;2018. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2835-0_13

  5. Schwingshackl L, Knüppel S, Michels N, et al. Intake of 12 food groups and disability‑adjusted life years from coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer in 16 European countries. Eur J Epidemiol. 2019;34:765–775. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-019-00523-4

  6. Knuppel A, Papier K, Key TJ, et al. EAT-Lancet score and major health outcomes: the EPIC-Oxford study. The Lancet. 2019;394(10194):213-214. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)31236-X

  7. Fong BYF, Chiu W-K, Chan WFM, et al. A review study of a green diet and healthy ageing. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(15):8024. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18158024

  8. Mangels AR. Bone nutrients for vegetarians. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(Suppl1):469S-75S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.113.071423

  9. Chen H, Shen, J, Xuan, J, et al. Plant-based dietary patterns in relation to mortality among older adults in China. Nature Aging. 2022;2:224–230. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43587-022-00180-5

  10. Eurostat. Overweight and obesity - BMI statistics. 2019. Accessed Mar 2022. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Overweight_and_obesity_-_BMI_statistics

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