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Healthy Aging

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A Lifetime of Experience and Changes

Let's face it.
Seniors have a lifetime of experience shopping, preparing and eating food. Fortunately, Americans enjoy one of the safest most healthful food supplies in the world.

But a lot has changed over that lifetime—from the way food is produced and distributed, to the way it is prepared and eaten. What is also changing is your ability to fight-off dangerous bacteria that may invade your body through the food you eat.

The good news is that well-known saying

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"
remains true. From the farm to the table, preventing the growth of foodborne bacteria is the key to reducing the millions of illnesses and thousands deaths each year.

To learn more about foodborne illness, understand why the changes in food production and food distribution are requiring consumers to take extra care when handling food, and to test your knowledge of safe food handling and food selection, read on. There is also information on food safety for young children, which may be important to you if you take care of young family members for day, a weekend, or full-time.

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What is Foodborne Illness?

Right now, there may be an invisible enemy ready to strike. He's called BAC (bacteria) and he can make you sick. In fact, even though you can't see BAC—or smell him, or feel him—he and millions more like him may have invaded the food you eat.

The illness caused by bacteria or other pathogens on food, often shows itself as flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, so many people may not recognize the illness is caused by bacteria or other pathogens on food.

Thousands of types of bacteria are naturally present in our environment. Not all bacteria cause disease in humans. For example, some bacteria are used beneficially in making cheese and yogurt.

Bacteria that cause disease are called pathogens. When certain pathogens enter the food supply, they can cause foodborne illness. Only a few types cause millions of cases of foodborne illness each year. Most cases of foodborne illness can be prevented.

A Lifetime of Changes in Food Production

It used to be that food was produced close to where people lived. Many people shopped daily, and prepared and ate their food at home. Eating in restaurants was saved for special occasions. Oh how the times have changed.

Turning the tables on foodborne illness requires responding to a complex web of trends:

  • new, more virulent, more drug-resistant pathogens are finding their way onto new foods;

  • there are changes in how food is processed; the food we eat today is produced around the world;

  • we're eating more meals outside the home–40 percent of the American food dollar today is spent in restaurants paying others to prepare our meals;

  • there is a growing senior population whose immune systems cannot fight off the harmful bacteria, which makes them more vulnerable to foodborne illness.

Now You Know—Bad Bacteria May Be in Your Good Food

Bacteria may be present on products when you purchase them. Plastic-wrapped boneless chicken breasts and ground meat, for example, were once part of live chickens or cattle. Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs are not sterile. Neither is produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and melons.

Foods, including safely cooked, ready-to-eat foods, can become cross-contaminated with bacteria transferred from raw products, meat juices or other contaminated products, or from persons with poor personal hygiene.

That's why care must be taken throughout the food production, distribution and consumption chain.

Just the Facts—Seniors Are at Risk for Foodborne Illness

Data on foodborne illnesses collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clearly show that those who are age 50 and older suffer more severe complications from foodborne illness that do those who are younger. These complications include more hospitalizations and an increased incidence of death.

Some of these harmful foodborne bacteria have been making news lately. You may have heard or read about bacteria such as Campylobacter in chicken, E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, Salmonella enteritidis in eggs, and Vibrio vulnificus in oysters. Illnesses resulting from these bacteria occurred because the consumers either ate the foods raw or undercooked (thorough cooking kills the bacteria) or the foods were not handled in a safe manner.

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Why Are Seniors At-risk for Foodborne Illness?

Dr. James L. Smith, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wanted to find out the answer to the question of why seniors are more at risk for fooborne illness.

So he reviewed data from foodborne outbreaks at nursing homes, and compared the immune and digestive systems of seniors and younger individuals as well as evaluating the overall physical well being of seniors. What he found is most interesting.

The Immune System and Aging

As we age, the ability of our immune system to function at normal levels decreases. The immune system is one of the most important mechanisms for fighting disease and preserving health, so a decrease in the level of disease-fighting cells is a significant factor in the number of infections that may occur.

In addition to the normal decrease in the function of the immune system as part of the aging process, undergoing major surgery also affects the body's ability to fight off infections.

To counteract the affects of aging on the immune system, long-term regular exercise is important.

The Gastrointestinal Tract and Aging

As we age, inflammation of the lining of the stomach and a decrease in stomach acid occur. Because the stomach plays an important role in limiting the number of bacteria that enter the small intestine, a decrease or loss of stomach acidity increases the likelihood of infection if a pathogen is ingested with food or water.

Also adding to the problem is the slow down of the digestive process, allowing for the rapid growth of pathogens in the gut and the possible formation of toxins.

Malnutrition and Aging

You maybe wondering what malnutrition has to do with foodborne illness. There is a connection. Malnutrition leads to increased incidence of infections, including those that result from foodborne bacteria.

There are many reasons why malnutrition occurs in seniors. There may be a decrease in the pleasure of eating. Medication, digestive disorders, chronic illnesses, physical disabilities or depression may result in a loss of appetite.

Good nutrition is an important factor in maintaining a healthy immune system.

Symptoms of Foodborne Illness

Common symptoms of foodborne illness include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, sometimes blood or pus in the stools, headache, vomiting, and severe exhaustion. However, symptoms will vary according to the type of bacteria and by the amount of contaminants eaten.

Symptoms may come on as early as half-hour after eating the contaminated food or they may not develop for several days or weeks. They usually last only a day or two, but in some cases can persist a week to 10 days. For most healthy people, foodborne illnesses are neither long lasting nor life threatening. However, they can be severe in seniors.

In Case of Foodborne Illness

If you suspect that you or a family member has foodborne illness follow these general guidelines:

  1. Preserve the evidence. If a portion of the suspect food is available, wrap it securely, mark "DANGER" and refrigerate it. Save all the packaging materials, such as cans or cartons. Write down the food type, the date, and time consumed, and when the symptoms started. Save any identical unopened products.

  2. Seek treatment immediately.

  3. Call the local health department if the suspect food was served at a large gathering, from a restaurant or other food service facility, or if it is a commercial product.

  4. Call the FDA Consumer Food Information Line at 1 (800-FDA-4010) if you have questions.

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What's a Senior to Eat?

Nutritionists agree that a healthful diet includes a variety of foods. Food choices also can help reduce the risk for chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancers, diabetes, stroke, and osteoporosis, that are the leading cause of death and disability among Americans. But for seniors, certain foods may pose a significant health hazard because of the level of bacteria present in the product's raw or uncooked state.

Seniors should avoid these products:

  • Raw fin fish and shellfish, including oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops.

  • Raw or unpasteurized milk or cheese.

  • Soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheese. (Hard cheeses, processed cheeses, cream cheese, cottage cheese, or yogurt need not be avoided.)

  • Raw or lightly cooked egg or egg products including salad dressings, cookie or cake batter, sauces, and beverages such as egg nog.

  • Raw meat or poultry.

  • Raw alfalfa sprouts which have only recently emerged as a recognized source of foodborne illness.

  • Unpasteurized or untreated fruit or vegetable juice. When fruits and vegetables are made into fresh-squeezed juice, harmful bacteria that may be present can become part of the finished product. Most juice in the United States, 98 percent, is pasteurized or otherwise treated to kill harmful bacteria. To help consumers identify unpasteurized or untreated juices, the Food and Drug Administration is requiring a warning label on these products. The label says:
This product has not been pasteurized and therefore may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.

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Healthy Aging