7 Super Foods that Prolong Life

Results of recent long-term research studies have pointed to a number of nutrients that many seniors lack, but are especially valuable for senior living. Here are seven "super foods" that are loaded with these essential nutrients. Some of the foods on this list may even surprise you.

1. Salmon or other fatty fish

Salmon and other cold water fish, such as tuna, sardines or mackerel are low in calories and saturated fat, yet high in protein. Most important, these fish are rich in a unique type of health-- promoting fat, the essential fatty acid, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), better known as omega-3.

Omega-3 essential fatty acid optimizes levels of triglycerides which carry fat in your bloodstream, reducing the low density LDL (bad) cholesterol linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, while improving the high HDL (good) cholesterol that fights deposits in the arteries. There is strong evidence linking low levels of DHA to memory loss and other symptoms of dementia. A 10-year study of 1,000 older individuals showed that a low DHA level was a significant risk factor for the onset of Alzheimer's disease (Archives of Neurology).

Why not just take fish oil supplements? Norwegian researchers studied the absorption of omega-3 from salmon compared to fish oil capsules and found that enjoying salmon or tuna just twice per week raised blood levels of omega-3 even more effectively than taking daily fish oil supplements.

Not all fish is good for you. Tilapia has increased in Popularity in recent years, due to its easy cultivation and low price. Unfortunately, scientists have found that Tilapia is not the healthy fish it was once assumed to be. Surprising new research (July 2008) found that Tilapia is potentially dangerous to eat. Researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine warn that farm-raised Tilapia has very low levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and, perhaps worse, very high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. The scientists say the combination could be a potentially dangerous food source for some patients, mostly seniors, with heart disease, arthritis, asthma and other allergic and auto-immune diseases that are particularly vulnerable to an "exaggerated inflammatory response." Omega-6 oils can also increase chances of memory problems, as found in a 2007 study of seniors.

2. Walnuts, almonds or other nuts

Considerable scientific evidence suggests that eating one ounce per day of certain nuts may reduce the risk of heart disease. In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved this claim exclusively for walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and peanuts. Although nuts are a higher-fat food, they are cholesterol-free. Most of their fat comes from heart-healthy unsaturated fat, including omega-3. In fact, one ounce of walnuts (about a handful) is all that is needed to meet the daily' omega-3 dietary recommendation by the National Acadenlies, Institute of Medicine.

Walnuts and other nuts (especially Brazil nuts) are also one of the best sources for what scientists have called the top three nutritional deficiencies: magnesium, manganese and selenium. These play a role in more than 100 biochemical reactions in the human body, including critical heart and nerve functions. One t ounce of nuts also provides 35 percent of the recommended dietary allowance ( RDA) for vitamin E. A study reported in the American Medical Association suggests vitamin E Journal of the may help protect people against Alzheimer's. (Incidentally, the study also found vitamin E in the form of supplements was not associated with a reduction in the risk of Alzheimer's disease.) Walnuts are also recommended as part of the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), a dietary plan clinically proven to significantly reduce blood pressure.

3. A carrot a day for vitamin A

According to Mary O'Brien, MD, in Alzheimer's: Prevention of the Disease and Other Dementias, "The idea that eating a carrot a day over a lifetime may preserve cognitive function in later years deserves considerable attention." Here's why carrots are garnering attention in Alzheimer's research: Oxidative damage to brain cells contributes to neurological degeneration and the development of dementia. That's why anti-oxidants such as vitamins A (beta-carotene), C, E and flavonoids are so important —especially for seniors. Many complementary studies have shown that individuals that consume higher levels of Vitamin A and other anti-oxidants over several years have substantially decreased levels of Alzheimer's disease.

Carrots make more than just brain food. "Did you know why they say carrots are great for your eyesight?" as the old joke goes, "That's why you never see a rabbit wearing glasses!" The ancient legend about carrots being good for eye health recently got some scientific validation. A new Dutch study links diets rich in four antioxidants—beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc—to lower odds of developing age-related macular degeneration. Nothing beats a carrot as a powerful source of beta-carotene (which your body converts to vitamin A). One carrot (7 1/2" long) delivers 203 percent of the daily RDA for vitamin A. Broccoli and other vegetables are also high in vitamin A, but you would have to eat almost nine broccoli spears to equal the vitamin A in one carrot. Don't over do it, though. More than three carrots a day will saturate the body's ability to store vitamin A over a short time and can show up as an orange tint on the skin. Also, excessive levels of vitamin A have been linked to an increased risk of hip fracture.

Because many seniors may have difficulty chewing, it's recommended to microwave or lightly steam vegetables to soften them while minimizing the loss of nutrients. Use as little water as possible when cooking. Other beta-carotene/vitamin A powerhouses include sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, mangoes and apricots.

4. Eggs—including the yolk, no joke

Eggs are a superior source of protein, containing all the essential amino acids needed by the human body. On the scale most commonly used for assessing protein, egg is at the highest point, 100, and is used as the standard against which all other foods are assessed. Eggs contain most of the vitamins—except vitamin C—and minerals that the human body requires for health. In particular, eggs are an excellent source of iodine (essential for the thyroid), phosphorus and calcium (required for bone health) and zinc (needed for wound healing and fighting infection).

Although eggs contain cholesterol, eating eggs in moderation won't adversely affect the blood cholesterol level of most people. Cholesterol levels are far more influenced by the amount of saturated and trans fat you eat than your consumption of dietary cholesterol. As Dietitian Nicole Senior notes in her book, Heart Food and Eat to Beat Cholesterol, "Everyone can enjoy eggs in moderation (around 3-4 eggs a week) in the context of a heart-friendly diet." Egg yolks also contain lecithin (phospholipids) which is a natural emulsifier and may reduce cholesterol absorption. You can also find eggs that have been fortified with DHA (omega-3).

To keep eggs healthy for the heart, they should be prepared using non-oily methods of cooking, such as hard- or soft-boiling or poaching. If you prefer fried or scrambled eggs, use olive oil or an olive-oil based spread or cooking spray instead of butter or trans-fatty margarine.

5. Flax seeds

Flax seeds contain high levels of lignin and omega-3 fatty acids. Lignin may benefit the heart and possess anti-cancer properties. Laboratory studies have found reduced growth in specific types of tumors. Flax may also lessen the severity of diabetes by stabilizing blood-sugar levels. Flax seed is also useful as a natural laxative due to its high, soluble (non-gassy) dietary fiber content. You can include flax seed in home cooking by sprinkling it on salads, meats and more. Flax seed mixture can even be substituted for eggs in home baking such as muffins and pancakes. (One tablespoon milled flax seed plus 3 tablespoons water = 1 egg. However, final products will be less fluffy.)

A word of caution about flax: because of the high fiber content, flax seeds and other foods with laxative properties may interfere with the absorption of some medications, so be sure to check with your doctor before including flax in your diet. Also, women undergoing treatment for a cancer that is estrogen-mediating, like breast cancer, should avoid flax, soy or other foods rich in phytoestrogens.

6. Blueberries

Packed with antioxidants, brain-boosting B-6, B12, folic acid and phytoflavinoids, blueberries are also high in potassium and vitamin C, making them the top choice of doctors and nutritionists. Not only can they lower your risk of heart disease and cancer, they are also anti-inflammatory. Frozen blueberries are just as good as fresh. "Inflammation is a key driver of all chronic diseases, so blueberries have a host of benefits," advises Ann Kulze, MD, Charleston, South Carolina "I tell everyone to have a serving (a half cup) every day."

7. Dark chocolate or hot cocoa

New research has shown that dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants. Nutritionists recommend 60 percent or higher cocoa content; the darker, the better. The darker it is, the lower the fat and sugar content. Cocoa can also help prevent osteoporosis, especially as a way to introduce skim milk (rich in calcium and vitamin D) into the diet. After age 50, the recommendation is 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily to help prevent osteoporosis. One cup of milk provides 300 milligrams. Mounting evidence suggests that low levels of vitamin D increase death risk for seniors. A 2008 study found that death rates from any illness, especially cardiovascular disease, were higher in people with low vitamin D.

Cornell University food scientists report that cocoa teems with antioxidants that can lower cholesterol and help prevent cancer. When they compared the anti-cancer activity of cocoa to green tea and red wine-beverages known to contain antioxidants, they found that cocoa has nearly twice the antioxidants of red wine and up to three times those found in green tea. Hot cocoa is better than cold. When cocoa is heated, more antioxidants are released.

Keep an eye on our blog for additional posts on nutrition for seniors


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