Lifting aged care residents’ dairy intake to recommended levels has reduced the risk of all fractures by a third and hip fractures by almost half, a University of Melbourne study has found.

The two-year study involving 7,195 aged care residents from 60 residential aged care facilities examined the impact of providing additional calcium and protein through dairy foods on the risk of fractures and falls in older adults.

It involved providing residents approximately two additional serves of dairy per day, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, to reach Australian Dietary Guidelines of four servings for women over 70 and three-and-a-half servings for men over 70.

Lead researcher Dr Sandra Iuliano said the study aimed to see whether improving aged care residents’ dairy food intake would reduce fractures primarily and falls.

Dr Sandra Iuliano

“We saw a 33 per cent reduction in risk of all fractures, and more specifically a 46 per cent reduction in risk of hip fractures, and overall an 11 per cent reduction in falls,” Dr Iuliano told Australian Ageing Agenda.

“The magnitude of the results did surprise me.”

Previous research has shown that aged residents are often only consuming two servings of dairy a day, said Dr Iuliano, a nutritionist and senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne.

“We know at around two servings a day; they’re only getting about half of the total calcium they need,” she said. “By changing the food and what they’re eating, we were able to increase their calcium intake as well as their protein intake.”

The study shows the additional calcium was slowing down residents’ bone loss and the additional protein was maintaining their muscles, Dr Iuliano said.

“We reduced the risk of falling and then we were gently reducing their risk of fracturing,” she said.

For the intervention, dietitians worked with chefs and cooks in participating aged care homes to increase dairy foods based on what residents wanted to eat and what they liked to cook.

“We fortified milk. We modified diets. We added dairy in place of snacks… We also used it as a substitution, so for example, instead of gravy, we might have used a cheese sauce instead,” Dr Iuliano said.

The study highlights the need for more education in aged care about the importance of food for residents, Dr Iuliano said.

“Ensuring that [residents are] receiving foods in line with recommended dietary intake is going to help support their health,” she said. “If [staff] don’t see what [residents are] eating as important, it’s not given a priority.”

Dr Iuliano said she would like all aged care providers ensure residents received the recommended amount of dairy food.

“We did it for two years. We did it in 60 facilities and so it is doable,” she said. “It wasn’t a costly intervention, it cost less than $1 a day.”

The study received grant funding from nine global dairy organisations, including Dairy Australia, and three philanthropic organisations.

The study was published in the British Medical Journal on 21 October.  

Access the study.

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