Older adults at risk for malnutrition and may not know it

Sept. 6, 2014—Food is the fuel that keeps a body going, whether you’re young or old. But a new study suggests that many older adults aren’t getting enough nutrients on a daily basis. Researchers found that more than half of the seniors studied were either malnourished or at risk for malnutrition, which can lead to a variety of health problems and increase risk for infection and injury. Thankfully, there are ways to help seniors get the nutrition they need.

About the study

Published in Annals of Emergency Medicine, the study sampled adults 65 and older who visited an emergency department in the southeastern United States. Of the 138 adults studied, 60 percent of the study participants were either malnourished or at risk for malnutrition. A full 16 percent were considered malnourished. Of these malnourished patients, 77 percent claimed they hadn’t been diagnosed as malnourished in the past.

The lack of proper nutrition wasn’t different for men or women, urban or rural locations, or varying levels of education. However, malnutrition was higher among patients:

  • With symptoms of depression
  • In assisted-living facilities
  • With difficulty eating
  • Reporting difficulty buying groceries

With these connections in mind, researchers suggest a comprehensive approach that involves:

  • Ensuring dental health.
  • Alleviating symptoms of depression.
  • Linking vulnerable seniors with food assistance programs, such as Meals on Wheels and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Read the full study here.

The take-home message
Caring for a senior can be challenging, and malnutrition may seem like just another thing to worry about. However, it’s an important consideration, because malnutrition can lead to:

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Fatigue and loss of strength
  • Depression
  • Poor memory
  • A weakened immune system
  • Anemia

Because of these health problems, malnourished seniors are more likely to fall, and they tend to have longer recovery times when they’re injured or undergo medical procedures. However, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, there are some simple things you can do to help an aging family member or friend. You could:

  • Check the fridge on your visits, and make sure that it’s well-stocked with healthful food choices. Look for vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean meats.
  • Visit during meal times so you can watch for issues that might require the help of a doctor.
  • Ask your loved one’s doctors and pharmacists about medication side effects. Some may cause a loss of appetite.

Small changes can have a big impact on your loved one’s nutrition. Try these tips to ward off malnutrition:

  • Encourage snacking. Small meals are especially helpful for older adults who get full quickly.
  • Make meals social. Go out to restaurants, or encourage your loved one to share meals with a friend or neighbor.
  • Share exercise. Even small amounts of exercise can increase appetite, so try walking together. Or encourage your loved one to join a fitness class designed for older adults.
  • Get connected. Reach out to your loved one’s doctor to talk about malnutrition and the ways it can be treated. Research the resources in your community that could help to deliver meals or make grocery bills easier to pay.

If you’re caring for an aging adult, visit the Caregiving health topic center for more tips.


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