As the U.S. population ages, malnourishment is a growing concern. Good nutrition is very important for all older adults. It is especially important for older adults who are ill or have been diagnosed with a chronic disease or dementia.
Malnutrition is when your body doesn’t get enough nutrients from the foods you eat to work properly. Nutrients include fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. These substances give your body energy and strengthen muscles. They help your body grow and repair tissues. They also regulate bodily functions such as breathing and the beating of your heart.
Malnutrition in older adults can lead to a number of health problems, including:
- Unintentional weight loss.
- Tiredness and fatigue (feeling out of energy).
- Muscle weakness or loss of strength. This could lead to falls, which could cause broken bones or fractures.
- Problems with memory.
- A weak immune system. This makes it hard for your body to fight off infections.
Why does malnutrition occur?
Malnutrition occurs when a person doesn’t have enough food or doesn’t eat enough healthy foods. A number of things may affect the amount and type of food that older adults eat. These include:
- Health problems. Older adults may have health problems that cause a loss of appetite or make it hard to eat. This could include conditions such as dementia and other chronic illnesses. They may be on restricted diets that make foods taste bland. They may also have dental problems that make it hard to chew or swallow foods.
- Lack of variety in diet. Fast food and processed foods don’t always have the full spectrum of nutrients that the body needs. Sometimes older adults tend to eat the same foods that they enjoy or are easy to prepare over and over, missing out on needed variety.
- Medicines. Certain medicines can decrease appetite or affect the taste and smell of food.
- Low income. Older adults may be on a fixed income. They may be paying for expensive medicines to help manage health conditions. They may have trouble paying for groceries, especially the healthy foods they need.
- Disability. Older adults who have dementia or physical disabilities may not be able to shop for groceries or cook for themselves.
- Social issues. Mealtimes can be social occasions. As we age, we may start to lose friends and family members. Older adults who usually eat alone may lose interest in cooking and eating.
- Alcoholism can decrease appetite and affect how the body absorbs nutrients from food.
- Depression in older adults can lead to loss of appetite.
Because of these health problems, malnourished adults tend to make more visits to their doctor, the hospital, and even the emergency room. They don’t recover from surgery or other procedures as quickly as adults who are well nourished.
Path to improved health
To improve your loved one’s nutrition, try some of the following:
- Encourage healthier food choices. The best foods are those that are full of nutrients, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Help your loved one limit his or her intake of solid fats, sugars, alcoholic beverages, and salt. Suggest ways to replace less healthy foods with healthier choices.
- Snacking on healthy foods is a good way to get extra nutrients and calories between meals. It may be especially helpful for older adults who quickly get full at mealtimes.
- Make food taste good again. If your loved one is on a restricted diet, herbs and spices can help restore flavor to bland foods. Just remember to avoid herb or spice blends that are heavy in salt.
- Consider adding supplements to your loved one’s diet. He or she may benefit from a supplement shake or other nutritional supplements. Talk to their doctor about these options.
- Encourage exercise. Even a little bit of exercise can help improve your loved one’s appetite and keep his or her bones and muscles strong.
- Plan social activities. Make mealtimes and exercise a social activity. Take your loved one on a walk around the block. Encourage him or her to meet a neighbor or friend for lunch. Many restaurants offer discounts for seniors.
- Talk to your loved one’s hospital, retirement community or nursing home. The staff may not notice that your loved one is malnourished. Bring it to their attention and create a plan to improve nutrition.
Things to consider
Managing your health and nutrition as you age can seem like a difficult task. If you are helping your loved one, talk to their family doctor and ask for help when you need it. The doctor can talk to you about their risk for malnutrition, health conditions, and medicines.
You may need help making sure your loved one is eating right. Home health aides can help shop for groceries and prepare meals. Check with your local Council on Aging and other senior community resources and community programs, such as Meals on Wheels. They may be able to help you care for your loved one.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How can I tell the difference between aging and malnutrition?
- What inexpensive foods provide healthy nutrients?
- Is it normal for older persons to eat less as they age?
- What if an older loved one or neighbor isn’t eating well but hasn’t lost weight?
National Council on Aging: Malnutrition May Be Hiding in Plain Sight
The National Resource Center on Nutrition and Aging: Nutrition, Food & Health
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.