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Make or Brake? The importance of a food-based approach for older adults

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Older Australians living in residential aged care are the source of 30% of all hip fractures, with around two-thirds being malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. This can lead to numerous health implications, including an increased risk of falls and fractures.

With our ageing population, there is a greater need than ever before for cost-effective measures that improve the health and well-being of our older people as well as reducing their healthcare costs. Ground-breaking research undertaken by the University of Melbourne and Austin Health has linked dietary changes with the prevention of falls and fractures in aged care residents.

Dr Sandra Iuliano from the University of Melbourne is the Principal Investigator of the study which was published in the British Medical Journal. We spoke with Sandra to learn about how we can reduce falls and fractures using a nutritional approach, in this case with – as simple as it sounds – milk, cheese and yoghurt.

Sandra, could you talk through the study in more detail and what was found?

The two-year, world first trial tested the impact of providing additional calcium and protein through dairy foods on the risk of fractures and falls in older adults. We recruited 60 residential aged-care facilities, with over 7000 residents. Half of the facilities were randomised to have extra dairy food on their menu. The other 30 facilities just went about their normal menu, and over that time, we followed all the residents, and we monitored falls, fractures and mortality.

We found that increasing dairy food intake from two serves per day to three and a half serves resulted in a 33% reduction in all fractures, a 46% reduction in hip fractures, and an 11% reduction in falls. 

With an increase in dairy food intake, did you see an increase in the facilities spending more on food? 

The aged care royal commission found that homes were not giving residents enough nutritious food. This study showed that lifting dairy intake from the current average to three and a half serves per day was extremely cost-effective, at less than $1 per resident per day. Dairy foods are a great way to get a very high number of nutrients into a single meal.  

What are the practical applications of the clinical trial?

Providing adequate dairy food in the diets of older adults, and therefore averting hip and other non-vertebral fractures, is a proven intervention and a sensible means to reduce costs on the public and private system while ensuring the quality of life for older Australians.

We’ve now got compelling scientific evidence that can be used to improve the health of high-risk populations by informing dietary guidelines and guiding good clinical practice including aged care and food provision policies.  

Dairy Australia is seeking to build awareness of the research and foster change.

The research was supported by grants from nine global dairy research foundations and three philanthropic organisations, including Dairy Australia.

Dairy Australia is working with our key partners (including Australian Dairy Farmers, the Australian Dairy Products Federation and State Dairy Farming Organisations) to encourage behaviour change. We aim to widely disseminate the research findings, support older people and aged care providers with information about benefits and practical ways to increase dairy intake and foster connections between dairy suppliers and care providers. We are also seeking to encourage governments to acknowledge the importance of dairy through policy and regulation.

We are eager to build awareness of the research findings and to encourage measures that actively improve the nutrition, health and well-being of older people, particularly those residing in aged care.

Do you work in any of the aged sectors or want to know how you can contribute to change? Please visit www.dairy.com.au/health/healthy-ageing-with-dairy or contact Melissa Cameron, Human Health and Nutrition Policy Manager at melissa.cameron@dairyaustralia.com.au.

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Dr Rivkeh Haryono is a Senior Nutrition Scientist at Dairy Australia where she is responsible for reviewing and communicating the latest research on dairy and human health. Rivkeh is also a Registered Nutritionist with the Nutrition Society of Australia.

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