A key to healthy aging: Nourishing mind and body

Nov. 14, 2023

Young through older adults were seated on the cushioned benches of the elegant and modern auditorium within the University of Arizona Health Sciences Innovation Building on Wednesday, September 20. Meghan Skiba, PhD, MS, MPH, RDN, assistant professor in the Advanced Nursing Practice and Science Division at the UArizona College of Nursing, stood underneath an array of shimmering string lights, where she shared insights about the importance of prioritizing essential nutrients for the sake of preserving health and preventing disease through aging.  

Skiba’s presentation, “The Essential Nutrients for Healthy Aging,” was the first of this season’s Innovations in Healthy Aging Lecture Series hosted by the UArizona Health Sciences. 

The intention of the series is to create an environment that welcomes older adults and promotes community involvement. Danitza Garcia, an administrative assistant for the department, described the initiative as striving to help older adults be “as resilient and healthy as possible.”

With the growing aging population, the prevalence of chronic diseases is also climbing. An unfavorable but complementary trend has developed regarding diet quality. Skiba noted how the proportion of older adults with poor diet quality has increased over the last 10 years, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, while those with ideal quality has remained steady. Steady, as in at almost zero percent. 

After a few chuckles from the crowd, Skiba emphasized how despite the inability to control the process of aging, we do have control over modifying at least some components of our diet. 

The timeline to onset of chronic conditions can vary between individuals. Often times, development can begin before it can be detected in the clinic. Skiba described it like an iceberg: a hidden component that might exist below the surface. However, more recently, molecular markers have been identified as hallmarks of aging. 

“There’s been evidence that shows dietary quality and nutrient intake can impact every single one of them,” Skiba said.

The “Mediterranean Diet” is a well-accepted model for healthy eating. Based on traditional eating in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, it typically includes leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, berries, fish, poultry and extra virgin olive oil. Adherence to this dietary regime has indeed been associated with greater cognitive function over time. The data are convincing.

But, Skiba added a plot twist. It doesn’t have to be this specific (Mediterranean) diet. Rather, it’s about proactively adding changes to improve dietary quality. It’s about optimizing six essential nutrients: water, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fat and protein. 

Skiba continued the presentation by carefully articulating the most important sources of nutrients to add to one’s diet, backing up each with biological mechanisms of how they impact health. They included: a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, beneficial fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains and legumes, and lean proteins. Interspersed between slides, Skiba offered examples of meals and snacks that include these nutrients. 

“When we build our plates, we can do food combinations for synergistic bioavailability,” Skiba said. “By consuming foods with complimentary vitamins, minerals with phytonutrients in them, we can increase the amount … that our body is able to absorb.” 

Audience members quickly took out their phones to capture a shot of the slides and save for later. Skiba pointed out that these pairings – tomato and garlic, lemon and green tea, milk and coffee, oatmeal and peanut butter, rice and beans – are common favorites. 

“And so that tells me intuitively, as people, we found that these not only taste good together, but we might feel a little bit better when we eat them together,” Skiba said. 

Finally, as the presentation concluded, Skiba discussed not only the importance of limiting processed foods but also another central nutrient that can easily be disregarded: making eating a social event. 

“The Surgeon General’s recent report noted that social isolation is a contributing factor for increasing mortality among older adults,” Skiba said. “Social eating is a way for us to connect food and culture to our nutrition, and I think that’s a beautiful way to do it.” 

Charlotte Quincannon, audience member and retired nurse, enjoyed the talk and reflected on a key takeaway. 

“The basics of nutrition are the basics, and they haven’t changed that much, it’s just that, now, the scientific breakdown of the nutrients is so much more known,” Quincannon said.

One of the main goals of the presentation, according to Skiba, was to have the “audience walk away knowing a little bit more, but also knowing that they're probably doing more than they already thought.”

A video recording of the lecture can be found at https://healthyaging.arizona.edu/events-lecture-series

This student blog was written by Wesley Ilana Schnapp, a science journalism student and a PhD candidate in the UArizona Neuroscience Graduate Interdisciplinary Program.