By Anastasia Stephens
Keeping in peak condition in old age can be boosted by nutrition, which scientists are proving is a powerful weapon in fighting off diseases. As new research shows that olive oil could play a vital role in protecting against dementia, we look at the key foods that have shown to be an ally against ageing.
MEMORY: OLIVE OIL
Using olive oil as much as possible could preserve your memory and your heart. Oleocanthal, a compound in olive oil, has been found to slow down changes in the brain that lead to Alzheimer's. Researchers believe it will become a key ingredient in medicines designed to combat the disease.
Alzheimer's disease is thought to occur when a protein called ADDL attacks brain cells. Scientists at the University of Philadelphia discovered that oleocanthal in olive oil changes ADDL in a way that makes it harmless.
Vital tips: A few additions to your diet could help fend off the wear and tear of the passing years
Oleocanthal, a key component of the Mediterranean diet, is already known to be an anti-inflammatory and is thought to protect against heart disease by raising levels of 'good' HDL cholesterol while lowering levels of damaging LDL cholesterol.
TIP: Oleocanthal gives olive oil its peppery taste and is highest in virgin oils. Replace regular cooking oil with good-quality olive oil. Use an olive oil-based spread rather than butter or margarine.
BONES: VITAMIN D
Falls and fractures could be a thing of the past if those aged 65 and over were to top up on Vitamin D, according to new research at Harvard University. The vitamin plays a key role in keeping bones and muscles strong, but many people in this age bracket still suffer from low levels.
Found in eggs, oily fish and animal liver, Vitamin D is also made beneath the skin when it is exposed to sunshine. The research at Harvard looked at the effect of Vitamin D supplements when given to 10,000 people over a period of 30 years. It led to 20 per cent fewer falls and fractures.
'One of the main roles of Vitamin D is to help fix calcium in bone,' says Elisabeth Weichselbaum, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. 'One of our main sources is sunlight and most of us don't get enough.'
TIP: Include Vitamin D-rich foods such as oily fish and eggs in your diet. In addition, Harvard researchers recommend that those over 65 take 800 to 1000 iu of Vitamin D daily as a supplement to boost bone and muscle strength.
CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH: OILY FISH
Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attack and to prevent furring up of the arteries. A study in the American Journal Of Respiratory Care, looking at more than 10,000 patients, found that a daily 2g dose of fish oil given to the elderly prevented a decline in heart function.
In patients with heart disease who had already suffered a heart attack, daily fish-oil supplements reduced cardiovascular death by 30 per cent. Japanese research published in The Lancet found that fish oil can make statin medication more effective, reducing heart complications by a further 20 per cent.
'A wealth of evidence shows fish oil can help heart health in the elderly,' says Weichselbaum. 'It also plays a role in protecting against other age-related conditions such as joint pain, immunity and cognitive decline.'
TIP: The British Nutrition Foundation advises older people to eat oily fish such as herring, salmon, mackerel and tuna twice a week.
Make it a rule to eat as many fiber-rich foods as you can.
'Dietary fiber encourages regular bowel movements and protects against problems such as constipation, diverticulitis and an irritable bowel, all of which can worsen with age,' says Weichselbaum.
Fiber will help preserve you in other areas, too. 'It helps keep cholesterol levels healthy and balances blood sugar so has a protective effect against heart disease and diabetes,' she adds.
Eating plenty of fiber will help protect from bowel cancer. A study in The Lancet found that when people who ate a low-fiber diet doubled their fibre intake, their risk of colorectal cancer fell by 40 per cent.
TIP: Focus on eating wholefoods rather than refined or processed food. Eat plenty of wholegrain breads, brown rice, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit and pulses.
According to research at the University of Texas, older people suffer from debilitating muscle loss not because of their age but because they eat too little protein. Their research in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition found that when protein-rich meals were added to the diets of those aged over 50, their muscle synthesis increased by 51 per cent.
'Between 16 and 27 per cent of older adults eat less than the recommended daily allowance of protein yet we discovered that they really benefit from eating proteinrich foods,' says Professor Douglas Paddon Jones, who led the study.
Dieticians recommend that older adults eat 1 to 1.25g of protein per kg of body weight - so someone weighing nine stone should eat about 60g of protein per day.
TIP: Eat protein from a variety of sources including fish, pulses and eggs. While a medium-size egg contains 6g protein, cheese and chicken contain 25g protein per 100g.
As age creeps up, infections can hit you harder. Yet boosting your immunity could be as easy as adding lashings of garlic and herbs to stews, salads and soups. A recent study found daily garlic supplements reduced the risk of catching a cold by more than half.
The active molecule allicin acts as a general antibiotic against a range of bacteria and viruses. It has been found to combat gastrointestinal infections as well as H. pylori, the microbe that causes stomach ulcers.
TIP: Allicin is highest in raw garlic, which can be chopped into fine pieces and added to soups and salads. For more consistent immune protection, take a daily garlic supplement.
EYESIGHT: FRUIT and LEAFY GREENS
Foods that score highly for eye health include leafy green vegetables, carrots, melons, tomatoes, red peppers, blueberries and aubergines, says Iain Anderson, chairman of The Eyecare Trust.
'These contain beneficial substances such as antioxidants, carotenoids and lutein. Eating three portions of fruit a day has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) by more than a third.'
Keep dark leafy greens such as spinach, chard, kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts at the top of your list. These are rich sources of two pigments - lutein and zeaxanthin - used by the retina at the back of the eye for clear vision.
Also aim to top up on Vitamin C. A Tufts University study found that Vitamin C supplementation reduced the risk of developing cataracts by 77 per cent, while another study found supplements reduced the risk of macular degeneration by about 25 per cent.
TIP: Eat a 100g serving of leafy green vegetables every other day. Make a fresh-fruit smoothie in the mornings. Broccoli and red peppers are also good Vitamin C sources - eat raw in salads or steam.