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Nutrition and falls

What people put into their bodies affects how their bodies work, move, and react to different situations. Consuming a diet that is energy-dense and nutritiously adequate can help older adults maintain their strength and independence and reduce their risk of falling. Poor nutrition can cause health effects such as dizziness, weakness, light-headedness, reduced concentration and headaches, which can increase older adults’ risk of falling.

It is important to consider and address the underlying causes of poor nutrition to make it easier for older adults to eat a nutritious diet. Underlying causes can include:

  • Chronic conditions
  • Oral health and dentition problems
  • Swallowing difficulties
  • Poor or loss of appetite
  • Difficulties in purchasing and storing food
  • Inability to prepare meals
  • Social isolation and depression

Calcium and vitamin D are two nutrients that are particularly important for older adults to reduce their falls risk. These nutrients play critical roles in maintaining and improving bone and muscle function and strength.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential for bone and muscle health and can improve dynamic balance, proximal muscle strength and help the body absorb more calcium. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk of falls in older adults. One-third of Australians do not meet their daily-required vitamin D levels for bone health.

The amount of daily sun exposure that individuals require depends on factors such as the individual’s skin colour, geographical location and season. For older adults with moderately fair skin, exposure of the arms for 6-7 minutes mid-morning and mid-afternoon in summer will maintain adequate vitamin D levels. Dark skinned older adults will require 3-6 times longer exposure.

Learn more about the importance of vitamin D on improving and maintaining bone health in older adults.

Calcium

Calcium is necessary for the development and maintenance of bones and forms with other minerals to make the bones strong.

Studies have shown that older people do not have enough calcium in their diet to maintain their bone strength and prevent bone loss, therefore placing people at increased risk of a fracture if they fall.

The required daily calcium intake for adults is 1000-1300mg, depending on age and sex, which can be achieved through a diet of calcium-rich foods. Three serves of dairy foods per day or calcium-rich non-dairy alternatives are recommended. However, if individual circumstances mean that this is not possible, supplementation may be needed.

Learn more about the importance of calcium in improving and maintaining bone health in older adults.

Australian Dietary Guidelines for older adults

The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide three guidelines for older adults

Dietary Guideline 1: To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs

Older adults should eat nutritious foods and keep physically active to help maintain muscle strength and a healthy weight.

The following calculators can be used to estimate the amount of energy and nutrients a client needs and the average recommended number of serves.

Dietary Guideline 2: Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five groups every day

Older adults should enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups every day:

  • Plenty of vegetables, including different types and colours, and legumes/beans
  • Fruit
  • Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as
    breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat

And drink plenty of water.

Dietary Guideline 3: Limit intake of foods and drinks containing fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol

It’s always good to limit saturated fats, added salt, added sugars, alcohol and low fibre choices for good health.

Older adults are also more likely to be living with a chronic disease and part of their self management might involve careful attention to choosing foods. Sometimes though, limiting fats, added salt and added sugars can mean a person who is at risk of malnutrition actually eats too few nutrients and kilojoules and can put themselves at risk. For some people it’s not straight forward and they need to talk to their health professional about the benefits and risks.

Older adults can also find that they need to eat more high fibre foods and to drink more water to avoid constipation as bowels tend to slow down with age.

Alcohol and falls

Acute alcohol consumption is common in falls-related injuries due to alcohol impairing the individuals physical coordination, balance, risk perception and decision making. Due to the physiological changes associated with ageing, the presence of co-morbid conditions and the consumption of medications, older adults in particular are vulnerable to the effects of alcohol and therefore alcohol consumption should be reduced.

For more information about alcohol and falls, visit the Alcohol and falls page.

How can I assist older adults to fuel their body?

Encourage older adults to fuel their bodies by:

  • Eating regular meals with a variety of foods from all five food groups
  • Drinking more water and staying hydrated
  • Drinking less alcohol

To ensure older adults are consuming the nutrients that they require, a nutritional assessment should be part of a multifactorial falls risk assessment and include the assessment of vitamin D intake, substance abuse and excessive alcohol intake.

The Healthy Eating for Adults: Eat for Health and Wellbeing is a great brochure to provide older adults with information on how to select nutritious foods and appropriate servings for their age.

Stay On Your Feet® nutrition-related resources

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