Good nutrition is vital at all stages of life, but for older adults, having a diet packed with nutrients such as calcium, protein, iron and fiber can mean the difference between aging gracefully and steady decline.
Fiber rich foods in particular can prove helpful as we age and the digestive system slows down. One of the effects of time is that the walls of the gastrointestinal tract contract less frequently. This leads to constipation and potentially fecal impaction or incontinence.
Diets rich in this plant-based nutrient, which is actually categorized as a carbohydrate, can also help older adults control their blood sugar levels, cholesterol and weight. But as it turns out, 97% of Americans don’t get enough fiber in their diet, according to a study published in the journal Nutrients.
There are two types of fiber; soluble and insoluble. While neither can actually be digested, soluble fiber dissolves in water, turning into a gelatinous substance that sticks to toxins, bile and debris and drags them through the digestive system.
Soluble fiber also helps bulk up your stool, which is helpful in making it easier for your system to pass it. This type of fiber is typically found in beans, oats and flaxseed and is a good way to lower your levels of low-density lipoprotein or “LDL”, aka bad cholesterol. It’s also associated with an increase in insulin sensitivity in diabetics.
In contrast to soluble fiber, insoluble fiber attracts water into your stool instead of dissolving in it. This makes your stool softer and can therefore be passed with less strain. Like soluble fiber, insulin sensitivity can be increased by insoluble fiber, but it also promotes healthy bowel movements.
Typically, insoluble fiber is found the skin of fruit, whole grains and vegetables. Plant-based foods often contain both types of fiber and are helpful in regulating the contractions needed to move food through the digestive system.
Does Fiber Effect Aging?
A study published in the Journals of Gerontology defines healthy aging as “the absence of disability, depressive symptoms, cognitive impairment, respiratory symptoms, and chronic diseases including cancer, coronary artery disease, and stroke.” That same study examined how certain dietary factors influence the status of these conditions.
Among the factors considered, fiber intake was considered the most important among a list that included total carbohydrate intake, glycemic index, glycemic load, and sugar intake.
The results showed that those with the highest fiber intake were 80% more likely to live a longer, healthier life. In other words, they were less likely to suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dementia, depression, and functional disability.
The population-based study examined 1,600 adults over a 10-year period and found that the healthiest individuals consumed an average of 29 grams of fiber per day.
Fiber and the Brain
The benefits of getting enough fiber doesn’t end at your gut health though. Recent research indicates that fiber also has an important impact on the brain by sparking a chemical reaction that reduces brain inflammation. That’s important, because inflammation in the brain is often tied to age-related cognitive decline, memory loss and the progression of neurodegenerative conditions.
The study, published in Frontiers in Immunology, noted that tests done thus far have been conducted solely in animal models and will require further human testing. But researchers are confident, given the results of other studies, that inflammation will be decreased in humans and lend even more truth to the adage “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.”