Malnutrition in the elderly is an underrecognized condition that is becoming increasingly more prevalent as the aging population increases. The term “malnutrition” means a deficiency in nutrition that causes adverse effects on the body and inhibits us from functioning at a normal level. While malnutrition is harmful at any age, seniors are affected especially hard- it makes them more susceptible to a weakened immune system, injury, possible hospitalizations and poor physical and mental health.
Malnutrition can be caused by multiple factors, including loss of appetite, lack of motivation to cook, inability to get to the grocery store, increased use or change in prescription medications, lack of ability to chew and swallow, etc. Recent studies suggest that an estimated 50% of elderly adults are malnourished. In this article, we will be discussing the dangers of malnutrition and offer tips and helpful resources.
A common symptom of malnutrition is brain fog, confusion or even cognitive decline in the long-term by contributing to diseases such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s. Food is the fuel that gives the body energy, and when we lack adequate calories and nutrients it creates a stress response in the body that can make us feel lethargic, irritable, depressed or anxious. Many of these symptoms are a result of blood sugar instability, which can easily be managed by eating light meals or snacks every 3-4 hours. Numerous clinical studies have proven the connection between our mental health and physical wellness, so it is important to provide your body with the proper nutrients that give us mental clarity and mood stability.
While losing weight may be beneficial for some, being underweight can be equally as dangerous as being overweight. Being underweight can increase your risk for bone fracture, muscle disorders and developing a weakened immune system which makes you more susceptible to illness. If you suspect that your elderly loved one is underweight, it may be time to assess why they aren’t eating as much as they used to: is food accessible? Are they able to cook for themselves? Do they suffer from memory issues that inhibit their ability to remember to eat? If you’re saying yes to any of these questions, it may be time to hire outside help, such as an in-home chef service that can provide meals. If your loved one is losing weight rapidly for no obvious reason, make sure to contact a doctor to ensure there are no underlying health issues.
Reduced Absorption of Nutrients
Undereating suppresses the digestive system, which lowers stomach acid and therefor suppresses your appetite. When our gut is not functioning optimally, our body is not able to absorb nutrients properly, leaving us in an under-nourished state. If you regularly experience symptoms like bloat, abnormal or infrequent bowel movements or abdominal discomfort, you likely need to address your gut health. Things that can help with this are eating easily-digested foods, eliminating processed foods, reducing stress and staying hydrated. Click here to read our article on the brain-gut connection.
Impaired Healing and Muscle Deterioration
Without enough calories or nutrients, our body will lack the ability to heal itself naturally, or at least at a much slower rate. Studies have shown that those experiencing malnourishment take longer to recover from illness, medical procedures and wounds like bruises, cuts, sprains and even broken bones. Other signs to be mindful of are abnormal hair loss, oral health issues or cold, thinning skin.
If your elderly loved one is showing signs of abnormal fatigue or lack of motivation to do activities like they used to, it may be a symptom of under-eating or eating a poor diet that lacks nutrients. As mentioned earlier in this article, food is our main energy source, and without proper nutrients our energy levels suffer. Those who eat regular meals throughout the day experience improved mental clarity and an increased desire to socialize, exercise and engage in activities.
It is always important to be on the lookout for possible health problems as you or an elderly loved one age. Make sure to schedule regular assessments with a physician, because after all, prevention is easier than treating. Here are some general tips for avoiding malnutrition:
- Eliminate processed foods that contain little to no nutrients
- Increase your intake of whole foods like fruits, vegetables and high-quality protein and carbohydrates
- Hydrate properly with water, herbal teas and hydrating fruits and vegetables
- Eat small meals or consume healthy snacks throughout the day
- Ensure that your elderly loved one has the resources available to them to get groceries and prepare a meal. If not, consider using a care service or a personal chef service to help meet those needs