Adding Years to Life and Life to Years

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This phrase was coined by Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger Jr., a pioneering epidemiologist who taught at Harvard from the 1960s to the 1990s. His attention-getting formula:

“Every hour of vigorous physical activity earns the exerciser an extra two or three hours of life”.

The key message in this phrase is that healthy living isn’t just about living longer. It has a powerful impact on daily life: improving energy, mental focus, and the ability to do the things you want to do.

Nutrition Works at the Cellular Level

Healthy foods provide nutrients cells need to function, producing the energy and chemicals that drive everything our bodies do. Cells have a natural aging process which is why our bodies function at a lower level as we get older. Systems like digestion, circulation, nerve signaling and metabolism among many others don’t work as efficiently or smoothly. Because of this, nutrition and other lifestyle factors become even more important and have a major impact on daily life. Our cells are just less resilient to unhealthy ways of eating and living. The good news is that we know a lot about how to eat and live to slow down the aging process and support healthy cellular and organ function as we age. 

Nutrients to Watch Out For

The aging process increases the need for some vitamins and minerals, often because the intestines aren’t able to digest and absorb them as well. Here’s a good guide from The National Institute on Aging:

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements for People Over Age 50
Vitamin D If you are age 50–70, you need at least 600 IU, but not more than 4,000 IU. If you are age 70 and older, you need at least 800 IU, but not more than 4,000 IU. You can get vitamin D from fatty fish, fish-liver oils, fortified milk and milk products, and fortified cereals.
Vitamin B6 Men need 1.7 mg every day. Women need 1.5 mg every day. You can get vitamin B6 from fortified cereals, whole grains, organ meats like liver, and fortified soy-based meat substitutes.
Vitamin B12 You need 2.4 mcg every day. Some people over age 50 have trouble absorbing the vitamin B12 found naturally in foods, so make sure you get enough of the supplement form of this vitamin, such as from fortified foods. You can get vitamin B12 from fortified cereals, meat, fish, poultry, and milk.
Folate You need 400 mcg each day. Folic acid is the form used to fortify grain products or added to dietary supplements. You can get folate from dark-green leafy vegetables like spinach, beans and peas, fruit like oranges and orange juice, and folic acid from fortified flour and fortified cereals.


Calcium is a mineral that is important for strong bones and teeth, so there are special recommendations for older people who are at risk for bone loss. You can get calcium from milk and milk products (remember to choose fat-free or low-fat whenever possible), some forms of tofu, dark-green leafy vegetables (like collard greens and kale), soybeans, canned sardines and salmon with bones, and calcium-fortified foods.

There are several types of calcium supplements. Calcium citrate and calcium carbonate tend to be the least expensive.

Calcium for People Over 50
Women age 51 and older Men age 51 to 70 Men age 71 and older
1,200 mg each day 1,000 mg each day 1,200 mg each day
Women and men age 51 and older: Don’t take more than 2,000 mg of calcium in a day.

Organs to Pay Attention to

Stomach and intestines. Without healthy digestion, the body will never get the nutrients it needs. Common issues of poor digestion include heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, discomfort or even pain. These issues can decrease appetite and lead to vitamin or mineral deficiencies. Some possible effects of aging include:

  • Decreased stomach acid. If you feel this an issue for you try drinking a cup of warm water 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar every morning. Note this is not a treatment for heartburn.
  • Constipation/ diarrhea. Both of these conditions may result in decreased nutritional health. Fiber is often an effective treatment for each (for diarrhea increase soluble fiber, for constipation increase insoluble fiber). Try eating more high fiber foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) or taking a fiber supplement like psyllium husk, chia seeds, or ground flax seeds.

A healthy brain helps maintain a steady mood, energy, and motivation. Brain function decreases with aging, impairing memory, learning, and communication. Healthy living supports all of these aspects of brain function as well as decreasing risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.

  • Want to eat for a healthy brain? There’s a diet for that. Find out more about the MIND diet designed to reduce the risk of age-related Alzheimer’s disease and dementia here.

Taste Buds decrease in number and sensitivity over time. You may need to boost the flavor of your food to keep enjoying it. Flavor of a dish is determined by how it’s cooked and several components: Fat, acid, sweet, savory (herbs, spices, salt), and heat. Adjust these factors to make sure you are enjoying your meals.

Bones (osteoporosis): limit alcohol and cigarettes, increase weight bearing exercise and foods with calcium and vitamin D for healthy bones.

What is a healthy weight in older adults?

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) only recommends weight loss if you are obese after the age of 65. Being “overweight” based on Body Mass Index (BMI) may be protective against illness and disease in advanced age.

A good way to determine a healthy weight for you is to pay attention to how you feel. Excess body weight can contribute to fatigue and joint pain. Being underweight can also cause fatigue, lack of strength and poor digestion (the intestines are a muscle too!).

Further info

The National Institute on Aging provides free booklets, videos, and online information about staying healthy as well as treating and preventing specific diseases. In-depth information is available about nutrients, meal planning, sample menus, and safe exercise to keep active. Go here for tools and tips on how to get started and stay motivated:


  • The MIND Diet. Maggie Moon
  • The Longevity Diet. Valter Longo

Happy eating and aging!


One Comment Add yours

  1. Richard Gibbs, MD says:

    Jason – what a great article! So well written, so very useful. Thank you, Richard


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