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Engage at Every Age: Celebrate Older Americans Month, May 2018

May 2018

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RDN, FAND, CFCS Family & Community Health Sciences Educator Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Across the country, older Americans—a rapidly growing population—are taking part in activities that promote wellness and social connection. They are sharing their experiences and giving back to enrich their communities. While there's still no magic bullet that will guarantee a healthy brain, a new AARP survey points to a promising nutritional formula: What's good for the rest of the body is good for the brain. The trick, experts say, is getting people to follow this commonsense guidance.

Adults age 40 and over who say they eat healthy foods most of the time are twice as likely as those who rarely eat a nutritious diet to rate their mental sharpness as “excellent” or “very good,” according to a new AARP consumer survey on brain health and nutrition. The more fruits, vegetables and fish respondents say they eat, the better they rate their brain health and overall health. Sixty-three percent of the adults surveyed say they eat a healthy diet up to three or four days a week. Those who eat seafood in a typical week, but not red meat, report better brain health and higher average mental well-being scores than individuals who have red meat but not seafood.

The Eating Healthy Is Good for Your Brain AARP Survey conducted in 2018 finds that people who eat nutritious foods report being more mentally sharp. The survey results are in line with new recommendations by AARP's Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), which conclude that a plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with better brain health and that eating fish and other seafood seems to improve cognitive function. In addition, excessive amounts of alcohol, saturated fats and salt are all harmful to brain health.

The foods that researchers say lead to brain health are the same ones that studies consistently show promote good heart health. Most adults don't eat the daily allotment from the five food groups recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ChooseMyPlate initiative. It recommends people over 30 eat: 1.5 to 2 cups of fruits; 2 to 3 cups of vegetables; 3 cups of dairy; 5 to 7 ounces of grains; and 5 to 6 ounces of proteins. Only 1 percent of survey respondents eat the ideal number of servings from all five food groups, one-third say they fall short in every food category. Women report eating better than men, and adults ages 40 to 54 cite more barriers that prevent them from eating well compared to adults over 65.

Among the reasons respondents say they don't eat healthy are: It is too expensive; it's “hard” to eat healthy; their family would not like the taste; there's few nearby stores that sell healthy food; and the belief that eating healthy won't make a difference. A majority agree that if their doctor recommended a change in diet, they'd be more likely to do it. But only 37 percent say their physician has ever mentioned diet, and only 10 percent say their doctor has recommended they follow an eating plan.  Nearly 9 in 10 say they would likely eat healthier if they knew it would lower the risks of cognitive decline, heart disease and diabetes. A total of 2,033 adults age 40 and older were surveyed between Oct. 25 and Nov. 8, 2017. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

Older Americans Month (OAM) has been observed to recognize older Americans and their contributions to our communities for over 55 years. This year's theme, Engage at Every Age, emphasizes the importance of being active and involved, no matter where you are in life. You are never too old (or too young) to participate in activities that can enrich your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. By taking small steps to eat healthier and remaining socially engaged, a person can improve their quality of life.