EU scientists on Monday called on the elderly to improve their diet as the European Union population grows older in an attempt to contain such debilitating problems like Alzheimer's, osteoporosis and colon cancer.
Over the next two decades, the number of Europeans over 80 will double as average life expectancy inches toward 79, increasing the need for better eating habits, said three scientists who have been investigating the links between nutrition and aging.
"Proper health, nutrition and care can postpone or minimize dependency in old age," said Dr. Christian Patermann, EU director of biotechnology research.
European researchers have found that a healthy diet could lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Dr. Tobias Hartmann, a researcher at the University in Heidelberg in Germany, said controlled amounts of specific types of fats could prevent this form of dementia, which affects 20 percent of octogenarians and 5 percent of people over 65.
"A diet can now be designed and have the potential to delay the onset of Alzheimer's," he said.
Hartmann said his group will now focus on the specifics of such a diet, and "how many years a diet has to be taken to get a positive effect."
Another researcher proposed enriched bread as a potential weapon against osteoporosis and fragile bones.
Bone health is linked to vitamin D, said Dr. Rikke Andersen, who studies nutrition at the Danish Institute of Food and Veterinary Research.
While required doses among different population groups are still being studied, Andersen said bread fortified with vitamin D could be a practical way to combat deficiencies.
"Bread is a nonfattening and healthy food eaten by most people so it could be a good vehicle for fortification," she said.
Some countries already fortify milk, or high-fat foods like margarine or oil.
French researcher Dr. Joel Dore spoke of developing "functional food," that would contain specific bacteria to help keep the colons of older Europeans functioning and healthy. A healthy colon prevents serious diseases like cancer and inconveniences like constipation.
Dore's project will now focus on adapting existing foods to include these bacteria, he said.
While research is still ongoing for all three findings, Hartmann said such projects have cemented public awareness of the connection between diet and disease.
"It's very, very clear people are combining food with health," he said. "The potential of food to help you remain healthy and not to fall ill is very strong."