How to Prevent Malnutrition in Seniors

May 6, 2016

How to Prevent Malnutrition in Seniors

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Simply put, malnutrition, or under-nutrition, is the state of being poorly nourished. When your body doesn’t get enough nutrients, it doesn’t work properly. Nutrients that your body needs include fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Not only do nutrients give your body energy, they help your body repair tissues and fight off infection. Nutrients are also important to help your body regulate various processes such as breathing or the beating of your heart.

Malnourishment in older populations, though not an imminent effect of aging, is a growing problem. Of the millions of elders admitted to the hospital every year, anywhere from 12 to 50 percent of adults are found to be malnourished upon admittance. Older adults that are undernourished experience longer hospital stays, higher healthcare costs, and higher mortality rates.

Effects of Malnutrition

Malnutrition in the older adult population can lead to many health problems. Without proper nourishment, elders will experience:

  • Loss or lack of energy
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Muscle weakness or strength loss leading to falls and fractures
  • Poor wound healing
  • Weakened immune system leading to increased risk of infection
  • Further disinterest in eating, which will make problems worse

Risk factors for Malnutrition in Older Adults

Malnourishment in older adults occurs when they are not getting enough food or enough healthy foods to fulfill their necessary nutrient intake. There are a variety of different causes for malnutrition in elderly populations. Some of these causes are as follows:

Health/medical factors

  • Health or dental issues that can lead to little appetite or trouble eating
  • Side effects of certain medications
  • Difficulty swallowing or absorbing nutrients
  • Diminished sense of smell and/or taste
  • Restricted diets to manage conditions

Lifestyle/social factors

  • Lack of knowledge regarding food, cooking, and/or nutrition
  • Isolation or loneliness during meal times
  • Limited income
  • Religious or cultural dietary needs/restrictions
  • Slow eating and limited meal times
  • Need of help or supervision with feeding

Psychological factors

  • Confusion (cognitive dysfunction)
  • Depression
  • Dementia
  • Bereavement
  • Anxiety/stress

Detecting Malnourishment in Older Adults

It can be difficult to determine if an older adult is suffering from malnutrition. However, there are some steps you can take to detect malnourishment and help prevent future complications

Observe eating habits

Make an effort to spend meal times with your senior loved one, or if they are in a care facility, visit during meal times to watch their eating habits. If your loved one lives alone, find out who is responsible for buying their food.

Unintentional weight loss

If you notice that your elder is losing weight unintentionally, try to determine the reason. It may be hard to monitor weight loss, but you can look at how their clothing is fitting over time to see the change.

Medication effects

Talk to your loved one’s doctor and learn about how they will be affected by their medications. There are various side effects that their prescriptions may have on their appetite, digestion, or nutrient absorption.

Other signs

Consider the mental health of your older loved one. If your senior is depressed, stressed, or suffering from any type of condition that results in cognitive dysfunction, they may not want to eat as much as they should be. Also, if an older adult is suffering from alcoholism, they may be drinking alcohol for their meals. Alcoholism can also disturb their digestive system and impede nutrient absorption.

Helping Seniors with Malnutrition

Your senior doesn't have to suffer from malnutrition, especially with all the nutrition resources available for seniors. If you suspect a senior is suffering from malnutrition, there are steps you can take to make sure they are getting the nutrient intake they need.

Talk with their physician

When you talk with your loved one’s doctor, they can help you identify reasons an elder is losing weight, or why their appetite is suppressed. By addressing these factors, you can work with the physician to change medications if possible, treat oral pain or chewing issues, as well as request nutrient screenings or supplements.

Give life to bland food

There are a number of reasons that an elder may have dietary restrictions, but that does not mean that their food has to be boring or plain. Even if your loved one is not able to have salt, fats or sugars, you can find other herbs, spices, or seasonings to give life to tasteless foods.

Make mealtimes social

For seniors that used to share mealtimes with their family or friends, moving into a care facility can make for lonely mealtimes. Visit your loved one during mealtimes—not just special occasions or holidays. Also, encourage your loved one to share their mealtime with others so that they are not isolated during meals.

Consider outside help

If your loved one lives on their own or has a limited income, help them find coupons, sales, and less expensive brands. Visit restaurants that have discounts for seniors. Consider hiring a home health aide that will help them buy and prepare their meals. You can also look into community services such as Meals on Wheels.

Detecting malnutrition in seniors can be difficult, however, it is important to detect this as early as possible and encourage healthy eating and living habits to promote longevity, independence, and good health.

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Frequently Asked Questions

I've heard that eating certain foods can actually work to help prevent Alzheimer's. Is that true?

An emerging number of studies would suggest that eating certain foods could promote brain health, while others can be harmful. Current research is investigating whether fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with a low-fat diet can serve to protect the brain against Alzheimer’s. Though, regardless of your predisposition to Alzheimer’s, it’s still vastly beneficial to eat as best as you can throughout your golden years.

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