How to Spot and Prevent Malnutrition in Seniors
As we age, so many changes occur with our bodies and our lifestyles that may make it hard to get all the nutrients that we need.
If you are a senior or a caregiver, knowing the signs of malnutrition and what to do if intervention is needed can make a significant difference in the quality of someone's life.
Malnutrition is a widespread problem among seniors, but it shouldn't be thought of as something normal. It is not normal and can be prevented by increasing awareness of signs, symptoms, and the necessary actions to avoid malnutrition.
What is malnutrition?
Malnutrition happens when your body is not getting enough nutrients from the foods and beverages that are being consumed. This can happen to anyone during their lives, but it is commonly seen in the elderly community.
Malnutrition can also refer to imbalances in nutrition. It doesn't always mean a lack of food, but it might be too much of some nutrients and not enough of others.
Overnutrition is when someone is getting too much of certain nutrients. These people might be overweight, but they have an imbalance of vitamins and minerals, leaving them malnourished.
Undernutrition is when someone is not getting enough nourishment due to not eating enough. Undernourished people are typically underweight and may experience what is called "wasting."
Being on either end of malnutrition can seriously affect someone's health, whether it's over or undernourished.
Some problems that can accompany malnourishment are:
- Vision problems
- Weakened immune system
- Increase in healthcare visits and costs
- Digestive problems
- Reduced cognitive functions
- Reduced physical functions
Reasons that may cause malnutrition in seniors
Various reasons may lead to malnutrition in seniors. They are at elevated risk, and many factors can decrease their nutrition.
- Side effects from medications
- Restricted diets
- Decrease in taste and smell
- Isolation due to living alone
- Not able to get food or afford enough food
- Poor food choices
- Poor oral health/ dental problems
Signs of malnutrition
Knowing the signs of malnutrition may help catch a problem before it gets out of hand. Here are signs that someone might be suffering from malnutrition, and it is time to take action.
Loss of appetite. If someone has a loss of appetite, it could be for several reasons. Catching the change in appetite early is important before malnutrition sets in from not eating properly. Early detection and prompt treatment are necessary.
Weight loss. This may be the most obvious sign you notice that something is going on. Seeing a change in how their clothes fit is a sure sign that problems are afoot. If weight loss is unintentional, there is likely malnutrition happening as well.
Weakness. It is normal to lose muscle mass as we age, but if you notice excessive weakness, instability, and an inability to perform daily activities, malnutrition might be the cause.
Fatigue. It is completely normal for your loved ones to slow down a bit as they age. However, if you find they are always tired or lack the energy to carry out their normal daily activities, there might be an underlying problem.
Irritability. If you notice your loved one is experiencing frequent mood swings, apathy, and irritability, these may be signs that they are lacking the nutrients they need.
Slow wound healing. It is common for wound healing to slow down as we age. It is abnormal for a wound to fester and not heal up for an awfully long time. If you notice your loved one has a wound that will just not heal, it could be due to malnutrition.
Not being able to concentrate. Your brain needs certain nutrients in order for it to function properly. If you notice a lack in concentration or an inability to focus on things like reading a book, following and engaging in conversations, paying bills, not doing beloved hobbies, etc. This could signify that the brain isn't getting the nutrition it needs to function properly.
They have a weakened immune system. Getting colds and cases of flu is common, but if you notice an increase in the amounts of viruses your loved one is picking up might be a sign that they are not getting the proper nutrients needed to keep their immune systems strong.
Expired food. Checking the refrigerator of your elderly family member and finding expired or spoiled food may indicate a loss of appetite. If your loved one is no longer cooking, that is a sign that something is going on.
What to do if you notice malnutrition in a senior
Malnutrition is serious, and whether you notice the signs in yourself or a loved one, it needs to be treated.
The first step would be to reach out to a medical professional to diagnose malnutrition and get to the root cause.
Here are a few actions that can be taken to help combat malnutrition.
Consider taking a supplement. This is something that should be first checked with a medical professional. If it is ok to take, a supplement might be all that is needed to correct any deficiencies.
Sneak in healthy ingredients whenever possible. Smoothies, soups, and spaghetti sauces are all great foods to sneak in some fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens.
Use spices. If food is tasting bland, adding herbs can help to make it more palatable.
Encourage healthy snacking. As we age, it is normal to not want to eat such big meals and snack more often. Fill up the cupboards and fridge with healthy, ready-made snacks to encourage snacking.
Make eating more social. Depression and isolation are issues that may arise as someone becomes a senior. Try making mealtimes more social by going out or inviting people over to dine with.
Grocery shop for them. Getting out of the house and buying groceries might become a task that an older person may not be able to do anymore. Offer to pick up groceries and help to put them away.
Learning how to spot and prevent malnutrition in seniors may save a life. Malnutrition can be severe, and thankfully it can be treated. It just takes someone to notice the signs and take action.
If you are a caregiver or have senior family members, it is crucial to always be on the lookout for signs of malnutrition.