Could good gut bacteria make elderly people just as healthy as those who are decades younger? That’s the conclusion of a new study from Chinese and Canadian researchers, who looked at more than 1,000 people ranging in age from 3 years old to 100.
The composition of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract—called the microbiome—in healthy elderly participants was similar to that of people in their 30s, researchers noted.
“This demonstrates that maintaining the diversity of your gut as you age is a biomarker of healthy ageing, just like low cholesterol is a biomarker of a healthy circulatory system,” says Greg Gloor, principal investigator on the study.
Part of the challenge that older people face is that it’s harder to maintain gut health as you age, according to nutritionist John Bagnulo.
“We don’t yet know if it’s a function of ageing or of diet, but when you get older, your levels of a specific, and very helpful, bacteria called bifidobacter tend to drop,” he says.
This, and other beneficial bacteria types, may be reduced by use of antibiotics and some medications such as proton pump inhibitors, he says. A diet that leans heavily toward processed foods and away from vegetables can also lower good gut bacteria, since they thrive in a veggie-rich and fibre-packed environment.
Taking probiotics supplements is one strategy, but a better approach would be to head to the produce section, he suggests, as well as increase consumption of fermented foods like non-pasteurised sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt and these other probiotic-rich foods.
Some supplements are not effective when it comes to the bacteria surviving the stomach and upper gastrointestinal tract’s use of acid to break down foods, Bagnulo says. But if they have a “delivery system” like yogurt or vegetables, they can land safely in the gut and start thriving there.
The colonisation of your gut—which sounds like a 1970s horror movie, but it’s actually a very good thing—by beneficial bacteria can bring a range of advantages, from better immunity to happier moods. Because of that, it’s worth focusing on ways to feed those beasties in your belly.
“Bottom line is: Eat your vegetables,” advises Bagnulo. “More than that, think about bringing in a variety of different options, from zucchini and beets to salad mix and leeks. Be creative and open-minded, and your gut will thank you.”