We have all seen film footage of malnourished people in other countries. But, malnutrition is a very real problem in our own country. According to the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN) approximately 15,000 hospital patients with malnutrition go undiagnosed every day. Patients with malnutrition have higher hospital costs, longer stays, and increased mortality.
The elder community, in particular, is prone to malnutrition problems.
Malnutrition can occur when your body doesn’t get enough nutrients from the foods you eat to work properly. These nutrients include protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. These substances give your body energy and help your body grow and repair tissues. They also regulate bodily functions such as breathing and the beating of your heart. While we often think of malnutrition as a possibility for people who are underweight, it can also occur in overweight people. The quality and variety of food is as important, if not more so, than the quantity consumed. Malnutrition negatively affects quality of life, increases health care costs, and increases the risk of short-term mortality.
Why is the elder community at higher risk for malnutrition? There are a number of contributors to this issue.
It is not unusual for a person to eat less as they age. Our sense of taste and smell can decrease with age, making mealtime less enjoyable and easier to skip. Missing meals can lead to slower metabolism, resulting in lessened hunger.
There can be medical issues that can lead to a poor diet. These include dental problems, difficulties swallowing, reflux, constipation, and diarrhea.
Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are treated with dietary restrictions. Sugar, salt, and fat contribute to the taste of food. These dietary restrictions may be healthier choices, but they can make food unpalatable. Medications can affect cause side effects (nausea or altered taste perception) that impact nutrition.
Sometimes, nutrition is an economic issue. The cost of housing and medical expenses can compete with the money needed for food. When financial concerns are present, meals might be skipped and the food that is purchased might not provide a nutritionally adequate diet. Ramen may be cheap, but it doesn’t provide much in the way of nutrition.
Declines in a person’s physical and/or cognitive abilities can affect their ability to shop for food and prepare meals. The inability to get out of the house can lead to social isolation, which commonly leads to apathy about food and therefore decreased intake.
An older person experiences change and loss through retirement, disability and death of friends and family as well as change in financial, social, and physical health status. These changes may lead to depression, a well-known cause of anorexia and weight loss.
Malnutrition in older adults can contribute to or cause a variety of problems, such as a weakened immune system, increasing the possibility of infection; slower wound healing; muscle weakness and loss of bone mass, which can lead to falls; an increased likelihood of hospitalization; and a higher risk of death. Malnutrition can also cause an increased loss of appetite—making the situation worse.
SeniorCare has a Nutrition Department that focusses on nutrition for elders. Our Meals on Wheels and Community Dining Sites provide regular healthy meals to hundreds of North Shore elders. For information on Meals on Wheels or the Community Dining, call SeniorCare’s Nutrition Department at 978-281-1750.