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10th February 2017

Small steps to better nutrition, giant leaps in disease reduction?

Next week I am speaking at a Healthy Ageing event in Cardiff on nutrition and age–related disease. So it’s been a good opportunity to reflect on the importance of diet to our health.

There is an undeniable relationship between risk of chronic disease and diet and lifestyle

For many chronic diseases, age is the greatest risk factor. There is now clear recognition that ageing is a lifelong process, from conception through to old age. There is also an undeniable relationship between risk of chronic disease and diet and lifestyle across the life course. WHO estimates that at least 80% of premature heart disease (under 75 years), stroke and type 2 diabetes and 40% of cancer could be prevented through healthy diet, along with regular physical activity and avoidance of tobacco. And as the population ages, there is increasing interest in the dietary prevention of dementia and cognitive decline.

Such dietary patterns may include modification of the fatty acid profile of the diet, replacing saturates with some unsaturated fats, increasing our intake of long chain omega 3 fatty acids (found in oily fish) and consuming plenty of fruit & veg, higher fibre foods like wholegrains and including pulses, nuts and seeds - a pattern typified by the Mediterranean diet which has had shown promising results in protection against neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases.

Poor or inappropriate nutrition is associated with both obesity and malnutrition

In our obesogenic age, it would be remiss not to look at the importance of appropriate energy balance over the lifecourse. More than half of the UK population are obese or overweight. There is no doubt that the impact of rising obesity has an influence on the health status and independence of an older generation; impacting on musculoskeletal, circulatory, metabolic and endocrine systems and increasing cancer, urological, and respiratory problems as well as psychological disorders. Poor or inappropriate nutrition is also associated with malnutrition. Around three million people in the UK are malnourished. Consequences of malnutrition include increased vulnerability to illness, reduced muscle function and increased risk of falls and poorer quality of life.

Improving lifestyle, including nutrition, in all age groups has one of the largest potential cost-savings for the NHS as well as social care, but requires a wide range of interventions. Implicit in this is recognition of wider partnership working and communication involving the key actors and partners to promote healthy ageing across the life course. We need to increase awareness in all that simple dietary and lifestyle changes, including adopting dietary patterns that provide appropriate amounts of key nutrients, can have a positive impact on long-term health and wellbeing. it’s never too early or too late to make changes.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Science Manager, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all.

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