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Malnutrition: A Serious Concern for Seniors

Most people associate malnutrition with third world countries, but it's also a danger for seniors, and more prevalent among older Americans than we realize.

Published: Apr 3, 2014

Malnutrition: A Serious Concern for Seniors

Most healthy Americans likely think malnutrition is something that only affects people in undeveloped countries. News stories make us believe that malnutrition affects mostly poor children in the third world, but malnutrition happens all over the world to all types of people, even those with plenty of resources to buy food. Recent studies indicate senior adults, especially those recovering from illness, are vulnerable to malnutrition. In fact, it's estimated that up to five million seniors are at risk, or are already malnourished and don't know it. 

According to National Pharmacies' website, this includes as many as 50 percent of people aged 65 and older, especially those who are isolated. It's also been reported by nutritional experts that there is a high likelihood that malnutrition is either not properly diagnosed in senior adults, or perhaps gets missed altogether. 

What is malnutrition? 

To stay healthy, one's body must ingest a variety of nutrients in the right quantities. Examples are protein, which helps build strong muscles, calcium to support bone structure, and iron, which helps us have energy, feel motivated and produce new red blood cells. When the body doesn't receive the proper nutrients--or in the proper amounts--it begins to stop functioning as it should. This 'break down' in the body can cause illnesses of all kinds, and also make illnesses people already have much worse. 

A few more specific examples of the body's daily-required nutrients can help you understand the effects of malnutrition, and include:

  • Iodine is a nutrient that affects the function of the thyroid. Without enough of this 'micro-nutrient,' proper function is compromised, and may lead to an underactive thyroid. Iodine can be supplied through a supplement, in fortified salt, and in seafood.
  • Vitamin A is good for eye health and the immune system. A lack of enough Vitamin A can be very serious and make you more likely to get sick. But supplying your body with Vitamin A in the right amount is easy by taking supplements recommended by your doctor, or by eating a lot of dark, leafy green vegetables.
  • Zinc is a micro-nutrient that affects the proper function of many of the body's enzymes. It can therefore compromise the immune system. 

A poor diet can lead not only to a decline in one's health, but also in one's mood and behavior. That's one of many reasons malnutrition can affect seniors and others who are isolated; if they are already feeling bad or lonely, they may not eat the right foods, or not eat at all. Sometimes those recovering from illness find it hard to swallow, or to get up and make healthy meals for themselves. Additionally, consuming too much alcohol can cut one's appetite and provides only 'empty calories.' Sometimes a decision to change one's diet can lead to another deficiency. For example, one might stop eating red meat to reduce cholesterol and then develop an iron or enzyme deficiency.

According to an article in RN Journal, improper diet can significantly impact one's weight, lengthen a hospital stay and cause increased infection rates. But also of concern to those who care for seniors are other factors, often visible in less severe cases of malnutrition: a lack of interest in activities, weakness and fatigue.

Can people who are over weight--even obese--suffer from malnutrition? Surprisingly the answer is yes. This is because malnutrition is not caused by the amount of calories one consumes, but by the types of calories eaten and the percentages of vitamins and minerals they contain. 

What are the signs of malnutrition?

  • Clothes that fit loosely
  • Bruising or cuts taking longer to heal
  • Dizziness
  • Eyes appear sunken
  • Hair loss
  • Inability to concentrate or irritability
  • Lack of strength for even routine activities

Since many of these symptoms are caused by other factors, only a doctor can decide if someone is malnourished. Because of the discovery of a high prevalence of malnutrition in senior adults, improved screening tools are now being used so that the risks of a poor diet among those who are older, ill or more isolated are greatly reduced.

Perhaps one of the lesser noticed and still devastating affects of malnourishment is that it causes one to miss out on too many of life's experiences, social activities and friendships. It's easy for someone who feels lethargic to want to stay at home and inactive, but that just compounds the problems caused by a poor diet.

The good news is correcting improper nutrition and maintaining the right nutrients in the body is not too difficult to understand or remedy. Since correcting one's poor diet choices is affected by numerous factors, your doctor or visiting nurse is the best source about what to eat and in what quantities. 

What are some ways to prevent malnutrition?

  • Plan your meals around the four major food groups: fruit and vegetables, starchy foods (preferably those made of whole grains), milk and dairy products, and protein, including meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein.
  • Greatly reduce or eliminate foods, drinks and snacks high in sugar and fat. Although the iodine in salt is an important nutrient in one's diet, too much salt is a common problem people make when making food choices and preparing meals.
  • Make meals ahead and have good snacks ready to eat in the refrigerator. These can include sandwiches, cut vegetables, or salad of your favorite fruits. If you're caring for a senior loved one, this is one of the best ways you can assist them when you can't be there.
  • Get meals delivered that are properly balanced, especially if it's difficult or dangerous to stand in the kitchen and cook.
  • Drink plenty of water and eat fruits that contain water such as: oranges, grapefruit and melons. Eat foods that are rich in potassium, such as bananas, as this nutrient is key in maintain electrolyte balance in the body.
  • If it's hard to remember what you have eaten, keep a diary to refer to, or pre-plan meals for a day or a week at a time.

If you have a condition such as diabetes or a digestive disorder, your doctor might give you more specific advice on your daily diet choices. One way to improve the enjoyment of healthier meals without using ingredients high fat or salt to add spices, garlic, lemon and herbs to enhance flavor. If you or your loved one has trouble remembering to eat, set a timer every few hours as a reminder.

If you are caring for a loved one who is or can easily become malnourished, keep these ideas in mind: plan to eat with them at mealtimes; ask the doctor about proper diet supplementation and monitor it closely; stay alert to the signs of malnutrition and be aware they can develop slowly making it easier to miss; prepare soups, stews and similar foods that can easily be reheated for leftovers; bring your loved one snacks and their favorite healthy foods to have on hand; and encourage them to visit the doctor for routine blood work to catch diet-related problems early.

It's hard to believe that, in the United States, malnutrition is a worry, but it is. And one of the best ways for seniors to take full advantage of outside activities is to prevent illnesses such as malnutrition by following their physician's advice about their diets. Then life will seem much more joyful and balanced. 

'Malnutrition,' by the editors of National Pharmacies, 
'Malnutrition in the Elderly: An Unrecognized Health Issue,' by Danielle Maher, RN Journal,, published by Times Publishing, LLC 
'Hunger and the Senior: 5 Million Seniors at Risk of Malnutrition,' by the editors of 
'Protecting Your Parent from Malnutrition,' by the editors of
'Eating Well as You Get Older: Benefits of Eating Well,', NIH Senior Health journal



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