Malnutrition In The Elderly Causes And Prevention

Malnutrition In The Elderly Causes And Prevention

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition is when your body doesn’t get enough nutrients from the foods you eat to work properly. Nutrients include fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals. These substances give your body energy. They help your body grow, repair tissues and regulate processes such as breathing and the beating of your heart.

Despite significant medical advances, undernutrition remains a significant and highly prevalent public health problem of developed countries. 

Malnutrition significantly increases morbidity and mortality and compromises the outcomes of other underlying conditions and diseases. Malnutrition may delay recovery and prolong hospitalization, lead to increased susceptibility to infection, impede individuals’ independence and quality of life, and even increase the risk of death in many patients.

Malnutrition poses a huge economic cost to society. The malnourished elderly are more likely to require health and social services, have more hospitalizations, and cause a burden on caregivers.

Malnutrition and older persons

Many of the diseases suffered by older persons are the result of dietary factors, some of which have been operating since infancy. These factors are then compounded by changes that naturally occur with the ageing process.

Dietary fat seems to be associated with cancer of the colon, pancreas and prostate. Atherogenic risk factors such as increased blood pressure, blood lipids and glucose intolerance, all of which are significantly affected by dietary factors, play a significant role in the development of coronary heart disease.

Degenerative diseases such as cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer, which are among the most common diseases affecting older persons, are all diet-affected. Increasingly in the diet/disease debate, the role that micronutrients play in promoting health and preventing noncommunicable disease is receiving considerable attention. Micronutrient deficiencies are often common in elderly people due to a number of factors such as their reduced food intake and a lack of variety in the foods they eat.

Another factor is the price of foods rich in micronutrients, which further discourages their consumption. Compounding this situation is the fact that the older people often suffer from decreased immune function, which contributes to this group’s increased morbidity and mortality. Other significant age-related changes include the loss of cognitive function and deteriorating vision, all of which hinder good health and dietary habits in old age.

Elevated serum cholesterol, a risk factor for coronary heart disease in both men and women, is common in older people and this relationship persists into very old age. As with younger people, drug therapy should be considered only after serious attempts have been made to modify diet. Intervention trials have shown that reduction of blood pressure by 6 mm Hg reduces the risk of stroke by 40% and of heart attack by 15%, and that a 10% reduction in blood cholesterol concentration will reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by 30%.

Dietary changes seem to affect risk-factor levels throughout life and may have an even greater impact in older people. Relatively modest reductions in saturated fat and salt intake, which would reduce blood pressure and cholesterol concentrations, could have a substantial effect on reducing the burden of cardiovascular disease. Increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables by one to two servings daily could cut cardiovascular risk by 30%.

What causes malnutrition in older persons?

Malnutrition occurs when a person doesn’t have enough food or doesn’t eat enough healthy foods. A number of things may affect the amount and type of food that older persons eat. These include the following:

  • Health problems: Older persons may have health problems that cause a loss of appetite or make it hard to eat. They may be on restricted diets that make foods taste bland. They may also have dental problems that make it hard to chew or swallow foods.
  • Medicines: Certain medicines can decrease appetite or affect the taste and smell of food.
  • Low income: Older persons may have trouble paying for groceries.
  • Disability: Older persons who have dementia or physical disabilities may not be able to shop for groceries or cook for themselves.
  • Alcoholism can decrease appetite and affect how the body absorbs nutrients from food.
  • Depression in older persons can lead to loss of appetite.

Preventing malnutrition in the elderly

1. Encourage healthier food choices

The best foods are those that are full of nutrients, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. Help your loved one limit his or her intake of solid fats, sugars, alcoholic beverages and salt. Suggest ways to replace less healthy foods with healthier choices.

Snacking on healthy foods is a good way to get extra nutrients and calories between meals. It may be especially helpful for older persons who quickly get full at mealtimes.

2. Make food taste good again

If your loved one is on a restricted diet, herbs and spices can help restore flavor to bland foods. Just remember to avoid herb or spice blends that are heavy in salt.

3. Consider adding supplements

If dietary changes aren’t providing your loved one with enough nutrients, he or she may benefit from a supplement shake or other nutritional supplements. Talk to your loved one’s doctor about these options.

4. Encourage exercise

Even a little bit of exercise can help improve your loved one’s appetite and keep his or her bones and muscles strong.

5. Plan social activities

Make mealtimes and exercise a social activity. Take your loved one on a walk around the block. Encourage him or her to meet a neighbor or friend for lunch. Many restaurants offer discounts for seniors.

6. Ask for help

If you have questions or need help, your loved one’s doctor is a good resource. The doctor can talk to you about your loved one’s risk for malnutrition and his or her medicines.