What can I eat to nourish my mind and protect against low mood in older adulthood?

Written by Francesca Vuolo, associate registered nutritionist and currently studying MSc Nutrition and Behaviour. 

The UK has an ageing population. We know that ageing leads to biological, physical, psychological, and social changes which can impact overall wellbeing.  Multiple factors can influence a person’s mental state (3). 

Depression is one of the most prevalent disorders worldwide. Mental symptoms include low mood, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, and lack of motivation. Physical symptoms can include changes in appetite or weight, lack of energy and changes to sleep cycle (1).  In older adults, aged 65 years and over, 28% of women and 22% of men experience depression (2).  Depression in older adults is associated with higher risk of physical health problems, social isolation, and increased risk of suicide (4). 

Ageing is inevitable, but that does not mean that poor mental health should be too.  

Linking mood to the brain

Ageing is associated with cognitive decline. In the brain, the hippocampus is associated with memory and mood regulation. Mood regulation is influenced by different neurochemical connections in the brain. These different connections involve nutrients from our food, in the production of neurotransmitters in the brain (6). 

There are hormones that act as neurotransmitters. Serotonin is our ‘happy’ hormone that contributes to good mood (6). Dopamine is the reward and motivation hormone though producing feelings of pleasure.  GABA plays a role in calming and slowing down brain activity. Deficiencies in these neurotransmitters is associated with depression (7). 

Seven nutrients to be aware of

Older adults are at increased risk of malnutrition due to physical, medical, social, and environmental factors. 

  1. Consuming adequate calories is important as the brain requires a high energy intake. Those who consume inadequate calories experience negative changes to mental function, increasing risk of depression (11). 
  2. Oily fish is a good source of omega 3s. These fats must be obtained via our diet. They form part of the cell membranes, support brain function and reduce neuroinflammation. An algae-based supplement is recommended if you do not consume fish (9)
  3. Protein consists of amino acids. Some neurotransmitters are made from these. Neurotransmitter Tryptophan is converted into serotonin in the brain (7). 
  4. Carbohydrates should make up 50% of our total energy requirements. They can be used to enhance the uptake of tryptophan into the brain due to the release of insulin (10). 
  5. Fruit and vegetables contain a diverse range of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that have neuroprotective properties (5). 
  6. Vitamin B12 absorption decreases in older adults, as the intrinsic factor needed for absorption decreases. As does levels of vitamin D; It’s important to supplement 10ug daily to meet recommended vitamin d daily intake (12). 
  7. Adequate water intake is key to stay hydrated. Mild dehydration can impact cognitive function, leading to reduced concentration, memory loss and altered mood (13).

In summary, Older adults should ensure that they nourish their bodies and minds through a varied and balanced diet. Multiple studies suggest that following a healthy diet is associated with improved mental health  (8). 

Francesca Vuolo is an associate registered nutritionist, with a BSc Hons Nutrition. Nutrition science is an exciting passion that led her into the world of nutritional psychiatry. Developing an understanding between food and mood, which she is exploring in her MSc Nutrition and Behaviour. 

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