How Nutrition and Exercise Can Help Preserve Independence in Aging Adults

Many factors impact our ability to stay independent as we age. Injuries, heredity and complications from diseases, in addition to the natural aging process itself, can rob us of our self-sufficiency. But how can older adults, healthy or otherwise, prolong their independence? In short, good nutritional habits and regular exercise. These lifestyle choices have been shown to help both healthy older adults and those with health challenges remain independent longer.

Below, we’ll address some widely applicable ways to preserve independence as well as some novel ways based on research. This includes a discussion with Dr. Robert Mankowski, assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Department of Physiology and Aging, whose ongoing studies involve some surprising sources of naturally occurring compounds that can help older adults stay independent. Some may even mimic the effects of exercise — especially beneficial to those with mobility issues. “The interventions I use are nutritional and exercise interventions,” Mankowski explained. “Mostly supplements and also exercise that consists of aerobic and/or resistance components. I’m also doing research with a combination of both nutrition and exercise.”

How Aging Adults Lose Their Independence

Before we discuss the research in greater detail, let’s first look at some factors that contribute to a loss of independence in older adults and how they can be prevented or delayed.

Maintenance Medications

A healthy diet, one with limited fats and sugars, can help keep otherwise healthy older people from having to resort to medications to control common conditions such as diabetes and high cholesterol. Moderate exercise, even walks, can help deter these conditions from developing in the first place, provided it is done regularly.

Mobility Assistance Equipment

Canes. Walkers. Wheelchairs. Mobility scooters. Any of these may be necessary for us at any stage of adulthood due to injuries or genetic conditions. Older adults who generally enjoy good mobility can prolong that freedom through regular exercise and a diet that keeps bones, joints and muscles strong.

Specialized Care Facilities

Active older adults can avoid or delay moving into an assisted living facility or skilled nursing facility and enjoy living with little or no assistance from others in walking, eating, bathing and performing other everyday tasks. In addition to its physical benefits, regular exercise promotes blood flow that helps the brain stay sharp, potentially delaying memory loss that may impede an older adult’s ability to live independently.

Better Health Through Red Wine and Cocoa?

Mankowski’s extensive research on the effects of nutrition and exercise in older people has shown that benefits can come from surprising sources. As he explained: “I was involved in a project involving resveratrol, a compound from red wine. [In previous studies] resveratrol was shown as activating a SIRT gene, a longevity gene connected to exercise-related changes such as muscle growth and improved energetics. On its own, resveratrol hasn’t shown much promise in humans in terms of improvements to muscle functions, but in combination with exercise, our studies show it was more effective than just exercise alone.”

Drinking red wine was not part of Mankowski’s study. Instead, it involved using a compound made of resveratrol. “You would have to drink 60 gallons of wine per day to obtain the concentration of the compound that we were giving to people in the study, which was 1,000 or 1,500 milligrams per day.” While no level of alcohol consumption actively promotes health, a compound derived from red wine may provide muscle benefits that essentially mimic the effects of physical exercise.

Mankowski most recently submitted a proposal to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to use a flavanol derived from cocoa to help older adults with certain diseases. “A compound called epicatechin, the most abundant flavanol present in cocoa, has been shown to be effective just on its own to improve walking speed in people with PAD, peripheral artery disease. Since it’s already effective, I proposed using it to optimize exercise training.”

In addition, Mankowski has proposed an NIH study on NAD+, a molecule found in living cells that’s essential to energetics and energy production. “There’s evidence that a compound, a form of vitamin B3, can improve production of NAD+ that is needed for energy production, which declines in our later years, and produce some health-related changes,” he explained. “So, I proposed that the NIH study this in older adults with hypertension and to try to optimize aerobic exercise, such as walking.”

Research-Driven Graduate Programs in Gerontology

Mankowski is a faculty member in UF’s online Master of Science in Medical Sciences with a concentration in Gerontology and Graduate Certificate in Aging and Geriatric Practice programs, offered through our renowned College of Medicine. If you’re looking to better serve the health needs of older adults while advancing your career, these programs were designed for you. You’ll learn more specifically about the effect of nutrition and exercise on the independence of older people through program courses including Healthy Aging in the New Millennium (GMS 6717) and Theories of Aging (GMS 6483).

Want to know more about online UF graduate programs? Consider these benefits:

  • Get started with no GRE or clinical experience required.
  • Access coursework 24/7 from practically any location on the planet.
  • Complete your master’s degree in as little as three semesters.
  • Complete your graduate certificate in as little as two semesters.

The aging population of our world is growing and diversifying. Build the skills and credentials to meet the demands of that demographic under the guidance of experts such as Dr. Mankowski in one of our online graduate programs in gerontology.