The Danger of Malnutrition in Older Adults

By Joy Saudargas, MA, RD, LDN

Malnutrition occurs when your body doesn’t get the right balance of nutrients and calories to stay healthy. It can happen to anyone at any age, but older adults are especially susceptible.

As we age, our senses of taste and smell may weaken, making food less appetizing and palatable. In addition, many older adults may have changing dietary needs, trouble chewing and swallowing, and their bodies may not be able to absorb nutrients in the same way they once did.

Malnutrition can have dire health consequences, which is why it’s important to make sure that older adults are regularly screened and provided with treatment and a nutrition plan if they are at risk.

Why Does Malnutrition Happen?

Malnutrition sometimes has roots in functional problems, such as the reduced mobility that accompanies aging. It may be harder for older adults to shop and cook their own food, or eat meals that are prepared for them. Additionally, as cognitive abilities decline with aging, the elderly may not remember to eat, or may not eat enough of the right foods to constitute a well-balanced diet. If this happens frequently, it can lead to malnutrition.

Chronic diseases in the elderly can also lead to malnutrition because they can reduce appetite, change metabolism, or require dietary restrictions and medications that suppress the appetite.

If an older adult is in a hospital, long-term facility, or nursing home, malnutrition is frequently a problem. They may not like the food options available to them; they may be dependent on staff for feeding, socially isolated, depressed or lack an interest in food. Unfortunately, malnutrition can lead to longer hospital stays and poor outcomes. This creates a cycle of recurring hospitalizations and worsening malnutrition.

The Consequences of Malnutrition

Among older adults, malnutrition can have serious consequences. It compromises the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off illnesses and deal with existing health conditions.

Malnutrition can speed the progression of sarcopenia, the natural loss of skeletal muscle that accompanies aging. This can increase frailty in older adults, making them more prone to dangerous falls, broken bones, muscle weakness and loss of independence.

Treating Malnutrition

Treating malnutrition is a complicated process that involves the entire healthcare team, from primary care physicians and nurses to doctors in hospitals and staff in nursing homes. Screening for malnutrition is an important first step and should be done during primary care visits, upon admission, before an older adult is discharged from the hospital or care facility, and on an as-needed basic depending on the person’s condition and health requirements.

If an older adult will be spending time in the hospital, they should request to be provided with a nutritional plan during their stay, and have one in place when they return home. This type of plan will help to reduce the risk for malnutrition frequently associated with hospitalization.

When healthcare providers and families work together as a team, it’s possible to avoid many of the health complications malnutrition creates. If you think an older adult in your life may be at risk for malnutrition, speak with them and their doctor about a potential plan to improve their nutrition.

About the Author

Joy Saudargas, MA, RD, LDN

Joy specializes in medical nutrition therapy. One of her favorite things about being a Registered Dietitian at Crozer-Keystone Health System is the sense of community and togetherness she experiences within the system.

To schedule a nutrition appointment, please call 800-254-3258.

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