Some of O'Toole's recent work has to do with the relationship between diet and gut microbiota in elderly people. I recently wrote an article about nutrition for seniors that piqued interest here in Canada, so O'Toole's major findings are really interesting to me:
- The setting where an elderly person lives appears to determine his/her gut microbiota: based on microbial species in fecal samples, scientists could predict which seniors lived in the community, a day-hospital, a rehab setting, or a long-term care facility
- The difference in gut microbiota in each setting could be because of different diets
- In general, seniors living in the community has diverse gut microbiota, and seniors in long-term care had less diverse microbiota
- Low-diversity gut microbiota correlated with poor health: sarcopenia (muscle loss), inflammation, and even lower cognitive function
|Source: Wikimedia Commons (Siobhan from Upstate New York)|
Like any human research, it's not easy to tease apart cause and effect here. This issue of causality has been controversial on at least one other paper that O'Toole co-authored. But the bottom line is that seniors in care facilities have a less diverse microbiota and poorer health.
It could be the case that by the time a person is ready to go into long-term residential care, he/she is already naturally in a state of declining health, regardless of diet. But we have converging evidence from other places that diet can indeed affect health through the microbiota. The other major possibility is more intriguing: what if the poor diet of a senior in a long-term care facility was the thing that caused poorer health from the day they entered? This isn't so far-fetched, as those who study geriatric populations (like Keller, below) will tell you.
I, for one, wouldn't be so keen to support an elderly parent going into a care facility if the menu was going to guarantee a health decline.
The problem would seem to have such a simple solution: change the menus in these care facilities. But I doubt it's as easy as it looks. There are all kinds of social and cultural factors to consider when creating menus, not to mention the pressure of keeping down costs. Dr. Heather Keller at University of Guelph is knowledgeable about some of these factors.
A word to the wise here, if you happen to be checking out the menu at your local long-term care facility: macaroni and cheese won't cut it. Elderly folks need protein, protein, and more protein.