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Aging and eating: good news for some.

Aging and Eating: Good News for Some

It's called the tea and toast phenomenon --elderly people nibble on carbohydrate snacks all day, shying away from preparing full meals and suffering from a protein-poor diet. That is the picture that emerged from anecdotal studies and national surveys conducted in the United States and England over the last 10 years. It is also what nutrition scientist Judith Wurtman expected to find when she and her co-workers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began a study comparing the food intake of healthy older people with that of younger people.

Instead, she discovered quite the opposite. "The older people didn't snack at all . . . and their protein intake was much higher than we anticipated. It was gram-for-gram almost identical to the [protein intake] of the young,' she said at a recent seminar at the National Institutes a Health, where she presented her preliminary findings.

Wurtman's results suggest that there is no underlying biological reason for healthy older people to avoid protein. She says elderly people who are not eating enough protein may be doing so for socioeconomic reasons--such as not being able to afford protein-rich meals, or being too lonely to cook for themselves. Or, she suggests, there may be other biological abnormalities, such as depression or alcoholism, that influence food choice. But aging per se does not appear to affect protein consumption.

In past work, Wurtman and others have shown that obese people and depressed people often crave carbohydrates because their brains are deficient in a chemical called serotonin, and carbohydrates increase serotonin levels (SN:4/7/84, p.216). She had anticipated that older people would also constantly snack on carbohydrates, perhaps because they need to compensate for the loss of serotonin-containing brain cells. But Wurtman found that the study's 49 older people, aged 65 to 94 years, actually ate fewer carbohydrates than did the 33 younger people, aged 15 to 35 years. The group that ate the least-balanced meals, she says, was the young women.

Wurtman says her study is the first to monitor carefully food intake in the elderly. For several days her subjects lived at an MIT research center where their meals were cooked for them. The carbohydrates and proteins they consumed, both as snacks and as meals, were measured directly. In past surveys, says Wurtman, researchers usually estimated food consumption by interviewing subjects about what they ate. Because there were no standardized meals made available to all participants, researchers could have only a qualitative feel for the nutritional content, and some participants may not have eaten some kinds of foods because they did not want to prepare meals themselves.

Wurtman would like to use her recent results on the eating habits of healthy older people as a standard against which to compare the food choices, and hence perhaps the brain function, of elderly people with illnesses and other dysfunctions. Other researchers maintain that, for whatever reasons, a large number of elderly still eat poorly. But Wurtman's conclusion for the healthy subset of older people tested in her study is that "these people eat very well. I think that's quite reassuring.'
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Author:Weisburd, Stefi
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 6, 1986
Words:521
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