What are micronutrients, and what do they have to do with healthy ageing?
The study of the microscopic world of micronutrients is a decades-old practice. From vitamins, trace minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids, and more – just how do micronutrients take centre stage as we age, what role do they play in our ageing process, and what is the true extent of the role they play in our overall nutrition and health?
To find out, this article based on our podcast Healthy ageing: the lifelong task of getting the right micronutrients aims to answer that exact question.
We spoke to Dr Christina Mesch, nutrition scientist and product manager at SternVitamin GmbH & Co, about how we should approach our lifelong task of getting the right micronutrients in our diet, how they can benefit our immune system and the prevention of chronic disease, and how food innovation is helping us to fortify key food and drink products to support a healthy ageing process.
What is healthy ageing?
You may be standing in line waiting to be served at the checkout only to see a wide variety of magazine covers all saying the same thing – how to look younger! Although we may all be in fear of developing wrinkles and sagging skin, there’s so much more than appearances when it comes to healthy ageing; and it isn’t about trying to look 20-something in your 60s. Healthy ageing is all about living your best life whilst retaining a great level of physical and mental health to enjoy it for as long as possible. So, how does one engage in healthy ageing?
All micronutrients are extremely important for the proper functioning of your body, and making sure you consume an adequate amount of these different vitamins and minerals is key to ensuring you remain in optimal health and ready to fight disease.
Micronutrients have a role to play in almost every single process in your body, with some vitamins and minerals even acting as antioxidants which may bolster defences against cell damage associated with cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and other similar diseases.
In short, healthy ageing describes a lifelong process that works to improve physical and mental health and quality of life. This means that, in order to go through a healthier and more graceful ageing process, steps should be taken at a younger age rather than being too late in life to do something positive for your health.
Although this isn’t to say that once you reach a certain point in life there is no point in doing things for the betterment of your own health, rather you should begin at any point; it is just the greatest effects will come from when you start the process at a younger age to benefit when you’re older.
Dr Christina Mesch states that some healthy ageing studies have too narrow a perspective when focussing on wellbeing in old age and that there are several important factors that have an effect on the process of ageing healthily.
“If we look at the definitions of the [World Health Organisation] for example, or also you use studies on healthy ageing, they mainly focus on well being an old age which is too narrow a perspective.
“There are several factors that influence healthy ageing, these include genetics, the social environment and personal [factors] such as socioeconomic status. The environment has an important influence on the development and maintenance of healthy behaviours and on healthy ageing.”
So, what kind of behaviours does healthy ageing include? What can someone do to remain in the best possible health within their power later in life? Dr Mesch states that retaining your mental capacity and being less at risk of potentially fatal diseases is one such benefit of not smoking and other life-prolonging actions.
“It is possible to reduce the risk of diseases and also improve physical and mental capacity when you maintain healthier behaviour throughout life – such as eating a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity and also refraining from alcohol and tobacco use … and getting the right micronutrients throughout life is very important for healthy ageing.”
What are macronutrients and micronutrients?
What are macro and micronutrients? There’s clearly a difference between the two, but what is it exactly? The term micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. On the other hand, macronutrients include proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. These terms incorporate macro and micro into their phrasing which determines how much of them your body requires – with your body requiring smaller amounts of micronutrients relative to macronutrients.
What are the micronutrients you need, and how much should you consume?
So, what is a micronutrient in food, what micronutrients do I need daily, and what are some examples of micronutrients? As humans cannot easily generate vitamins and minerals, we need to obtain micronutrients, also known as essential nutrients, from the food we eat. You consume these vitamins that plants and animals have created or the minerals they have absorbed and, with the micronutrient content being different in every type of food, it is essential that you have a varied diet in order to consume a good level of them as micronutrients are necessary for optimal health.
So, how can we get the right amount of micronutrients in our diets, and are there groups of people who are more susceptible than others to not getting enough of these nutrients in their diet? Dr Mesch explains that older people tend to be among the most vulnerable to not getting adequate micronutrients in their diet and describes that a lack of knowledge about food and what could inhibit the absorption of essential micronutrients could be the reason why.
“In general, older people and especially nursing home residents are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition. There are risk factors like, for example, loss of taste, smell and appetite, also oral problems and disorders such as gastrointestinal issues. This is in addition to a lack of knowledge about food, cooking and nutrition, poverty, and loneliness. All these factors contribute to malnutrition, and we know that vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common in older people.
“A study estimated that 35% of those aged 50+ in Europe, the US and Canada have demonstrable micronutrient deficiencies. Critical micronutrients are vitamins A, C, D, E, and several B vitamins such as vitamin B 12 or iron magnesium and zinc. There’s growing evidence that less than optimal blood levels of micronutrients are associated with several different diseases, for example, cardiovascular disease, but also poor bone health and impaired immune function – all conditions which are common in older people. It is also important to note here that several medications can reduce the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals.”
Dr Mesch also explains that ageing can cause bodily functions that previously assisted in the absorption of micronutrients to work less effectively or not at all, and that older people will need a good intake of these vitamins and minerals in order to support their healthy ageing process.
“Certain bodily functions decrease during ageing, too, and that also reduces the absorption of certain micronutrients. For example, the decline in gastric acid secretion that occurs with increasing age can make it difficult to absorb food bonds, vitamin B12 in meat, for example. Because of this, it is crucial that older people get an adequate supply of critical vitamins and minerals to support healthy ageing.”
We’ve discussed at what stage the human body begins losing its ability to efficiently absorb micronutrients, but what about the stage of life when an intake of micronutrients is absolutely crucial to set us up for a real healthy ageing process? Is there just one stage of life when this is, or are there multiple?
Dr Mesch explains that different micronutrients are essential at different stages of life – from development as a foetus, growing through puberty, and even as an adult, a varied diet full of micronutrients will set us up for a healthy ageing process at every stage of life.
“Micronutrients play an important role at every [stage in life]. From family planning to birth, growth, learning, and coping with stress, until old age. [Micronutrients] are involved in over 100,000 metabolic processes, and the right supply of micronutrients in the right balance is therefore crucial during the entire life. [It is during] the first 1000 days of a child’s life, including pregnancy, where nutrition forms the basis for lifelong health into old age and, during this time, the foetus and infant need to get an optimal supply of all important macro and micronutrients for adequate development.
“Studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy may be linked with dental and respiratory problems and infections in childhood. The phase of a child’s development through the end of puberty is related to increasing cognitive challenges and growth, and defence against infections. During this phase, there is a growing need for further micronutrients like B vitamins, and vitamins A, C, D, and E. Then we have the period up to the age of 30, where calcium phosphate and vitamins like C, D, K, and some B vitamins play a key role in building peak bone mass.
“Bone mass is the maximum amount of bone a person has during their life. So, regarding the risk of osteoporosis in advanced age, and especially in women, it is crucial to avoid a deficiency in childhood through to young adulthood, and coming adulthood. Staying healthy into old age has a lot to do with a healthy diet, so an adequate supply of antioxidative micronutrients may protect against chronic diseases in old age.”
Interested in discovering more about micronutrients, what stages of life they are most important for, and how you can bolster your intake of essential vitamins and minerals? Listen to our full interview with Dr Christina Mesch the Food Matters Live Podcast: