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Seniors and Sugar

  • Category: General Health
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Matt Gougler
Seniors and Sugar

February is home to Valentine's Day, which means store shelves are overflowing with tempting, heart-shaped sweets. Considering that roughly two in three U.S. adults are overweight or obese, America – as a whole – should slash its sugar consumption not only on Feb. 14, but all year-round.

With Valentine's Day as a backdrop, ATRIO Health Plans also wants seniors to know why they, in particular, need to keep their sweet tooth in check.

Taste Buds are to Blame

As we age, our taste buds become fewer in number. In fact, by about age 70, people will have lost two out of three of their original 10,000 taste buds. Aging additionally is accompanied by a decreased sense of smell, which – like taste buds – impacts the taste of food. Another factor also is in the mix; more than 250 medications have been found to diminish the senses of taste and smell, thus impacting how food is experienced.

Taken together, these factors help explain why many seniors are drawn toward sweets. Equipped with fewer taste buds and a reduced sense of smell, elderly adults often report a loss in appetite. Items with high sugar content, however, are robust enough to register with seniors' taste buds. Many seniors also experience a sense of comfort when eating sweets.

Beyond Weight Gain

Overconsumption of sugar not only tips the scale in the wrong direction, but growing scientific evidence indicates that eating too much sugar can lead to serious diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease.

For seniors, sugar potentially poses another threat: mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI refers to memory or other cognitive problems that are more severe than those associated with normal aging. A person with MCI is at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

Many scientists now believe what is often humorously referred to as a "senior moment" – a temporary mental lapse – is caused by elevated blood sugar levels in the brain.

Recent research also has shown that the hippocampus – the area of the brain responsible for short-term memory – shrinks as a result of long-term sugar consumption. In a study of more than 1,200 adults ages 70 to 89, those with the highest sugar intake were 1.5 times likelier to experience MCI than those with the lowest levels of sugar consumption.

Be Sugar Smart

Sugar shouldn't be considered your body's enemy. To the contrary, when consumed in moderation, sugar plays an important role in fueling our brains. High levels of sugar, however, may prevent the brain from properly processing sugar into needed fuel.

To maintain healthy levels of sugar, it's important to be aware that a wide range of processed foods, condiments, dressings, beverages, smoothies and dairy products contain more sugar than most people would expect. That's why it's important to carefully check food labels to see how many grams of sugar are in a serving.

Having a sweet here and there – such as on Valentine's Day – is not a food crime. Seniors, however, should be particularly mindful of sugar's bittersweet potential.