Malnutrition in Older Adults is a ‘Hidden Epidemic’
Malnutrition in older adults has been called a “hidden epidemic.” That’s because, according to the Alliance for Aging Research, “the symptoms of malnutrition can be hard to identify, even by a health care professional. Often, symptoms are dismissed as a ‘normal’ part of aging.”
Malnutrition affects seniors living at home, but also those living in rehabilitation or long-term care residences. And it affects people from all socio-economic groups, for various reasons. As the Alliance for Aging Research explains, “Older adults are more likely to have chronic conditions that put them at risk for malnutrition. Cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and other conditions can impact appetite, make eating difficult, change metabolism, and require dietary restrictions.”
Noticing malnutrition in older adults
According to the National Council on Aging, you should talk to your doctor if you (or your older loved one) have any of these risk factors or warning signs of poor nutrition:
Risk factors: Poor eating habits, difficulty chewing and swallowing, the ability to eat only small amounts, untreated or recognized dental issues, digestive problems, and taking multiple medicines
Warning signs: Unexpected weight loss, weakness, fatigue, and fluid accumulation
Nutritional needs for older people
“What works for you in your twenties won’t necessarily work for you in your fifties,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Colleen Tewksbury, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “As you age and evolve, so do your health and nutrition needs.” The Academy’s recommendations include these for aging adults:
- 40s to 50s — Fine tune your healthful eating habits and continue to incorporate regular physical activity as your body changes due to fluctuating hormones and slowing metabolism. Also continue to focus on ways to limit foods and beverages with added sugars, salt and saturated fat.
- 60s and beyond — Continue to include a variety of protein-rich foods to maintain bone strength and incorporate strength-building activities to maintain muscle. Good sources of protein include seafood, lean cuts of meat, eggs, beans, tofu and nuts. Animal-based protein foods also provide vitamin B12, which is a concern for some older adults. Foods also may be fortified with vitamin B12 or a supplement may be recommended by your health care provider.
The National Institute on Aging offers a helpful web page called “Overcoming Roadblocks to Healthy Eating.” It has tips on dealing with a variety of factors that might affect an older person’s nutrition, such as being tired of cooking or eating alone, food tasting different, and physical problems like arthritis.
Whatever steps you take to improve your nutrition, it’s important to discuss your challenges or concerns with your doctor or a registered dietitian nutritionist. They’ll take into consideration your health background and your lifestyle when providing guidance. As certified Aging Life Care Professionals®, we at LifeCare Advocates can find creative solutions to many of these roadblocks as well as monitor an older adult’s diet and intake to ensure they’re getting the nutrition they need to age well.