Diet quality declines among older adults in U.S., study finds

A new study has found that diet quality is declining among older adults. Photo by cattalin/Pixabay
A new study has found that diet quality is declining among older adults. Photo by cattalin/Pixabay

March 11 (UPI) -- Nearly two-thirds of adults age 65 years and older in the United States eat an unhealthy diet, a study published Friday by JAMA Network Open found.

This is up from just over half two decades ago, the data showed.


Well under 1% of all adults in this age group nationally eat what is considered an "ideal" diet, the researchers said.

"It was a bit surprising to us that the diet quality deteriorated over the past nearly 20 years among older adults," study co-author Chenkai Wu told UPI in an email.

"We hope that our findings could make older adults and their caregivers aware of the importance of adhering to a healthy diet and increase public awareness of diet quality," said Wu, an assistant professor of global health at Duke Kunshan University in China.

The findings are based on an analysis of eating habits among adults age 65 years and older in the United States between 2001 and 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

The researchers used diet-related responses from the nine National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys conducted during the study period and evaluated them against American Heart Association's 2020 Strategic Impact Goals for diet score and the Healthy Eating Index-2015.


Both of these measures are used to evaluate diet quality, while the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey is conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every two years to evaluate health and diet habits for people in the United States, the researchers said.

Among nearly 11,000 adults age 65 years and older included in this study, the average American Heart Association diet score declined to about 18 out of 50 in 2018 from 20 out of 50 in 2001, the data showed.

Over the same period, adults in this age group saw their Healthy Eating Index-2015 score drop to 45 out of 100 from 48 out of 100, the researchers said.

Based on both scoring systems, older adults increased their consumption of processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and salt-containing foods, according to the researchers.

At the same time, they reduced their intake of healthier options such as fruit and vegetables, fish and whole grains, the data showed.

To maintain a healthy weight, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that adults eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables and at least one serving of whole grains daily, while limiting consumption of red and processed meats, as well as sugar-containing foods and drinks.


Previous studies have found that older adults who eat a healthy diet can add as much as 10 years onto their lifespans, while warding off cognitive decline.

Still, research suggests that consumption of unhealthy, "ultra-processed" foods is rising nationally across all age groups.

"Studies have consistently shown that poor diet quality is a major risk factor for a wide variety of adverse health outcomes among older adults, such as chronic diseases, disability, frailty and death," Wu said.

"A deteriorating trend in diet quality is alarming as it will further exacerbate the diet-related disease burden among elders," he said.

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