How to identify and prevent malnutrition in the elderly

Retired soldier and his wife having tea and biscuits. Photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov.

Elderly Malnutrition: Prevalent and Detrimental

Malnutrition is a serious and often under-diagnosed health concern in the elderly. In Australia alone, it is estimated that over 40% of people over the age of 65 are either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition.1 The slowing of physiological processes and a decrease in appetite are common and can lead to detrimental effects on health and wellbeing. Understanding the root causes and methods of improving nutrition are essential in battling nutritional deficiencies in the elderly.

Causes of Elderly Malnutrition

Dr. Jane Tilly observes in her paper, Opportunities to Improve Nutrition for Older Adults and Reduce Risk of Poor Health Outcomes, that alongside the inevitable physiological decline, older adults’ chronic conditions and use of multiple medications may increase, which can affect nutrition status. She states that external issues, such as depression and isolation, could also cause malnutrition in the elderly. A reduced amount of social contact could lead to a disinterest in eating or making the effort to prepare a meal. Isolation and feelings of loneliness can also lead to depression, along with other contributing factors such as limited mobility and grief, which can result in a loss of appetite.2

Identifying the Signs

Spotting the signs of malnutrition is not always easy, especially when the causes are not immediately apparent. Mayo Clinic suggests a few red flags that could signal malnutrition. The fairly obvious one to watch out for is weight loss, which likely indicates that there has been a change in diet or amount being consumed. Loss in weight will soon lead to clothes, belts and jewellery that once fit properly, looking much looser. However, there are other, less obvious symptoms to look out for that include physical and psychological changes. Psychologically, malnutrition could lead to feelings of depression. More physical symptoms may include easily bruising, slow-to-heal wounds, and frequently feeling cold.3

Queensland Health has developed a Malnutrition Screening Tool (MST)4 that can help to determine whether you or a loved one is at risk of malnutrition. The MST is quick and easy to use, consisting of just two questions about appetite and unintentional weight loss. Simply add the two answer scores together, and you will get an at risk or not at risk result. Click the button below to download the MST.

Malnutrition Screening Tool

Improving Nutrition in the Elderly

Dietary assessment and counselling may prove effective in improving attitudes toward nutrition and food, as well as dealing with the complex issues associated with malnutrition.5

Altering the diet can help to improve nutrition in the elderly. Some easy tips include consuming foods high in vitamin D (e.g. oily fish), avoiding salt and sugar, drinking more liquids, and using smoothies to incorporate more fruits and vegetables in the diet.6

As well as making active changes to diet, supplements can be another useful method in improving nutritional levels. Specific supplements can target specific deficiencies, or nutritionally complete supplements, such as AdVital, can be taken to improve overall nourishment and wellbeing, in one fell scoop.

When people don’t feel like eating, it is important to encourage them to eat whichever foods that do appeal to them. The nutritional value of these foods can easily be boosted with the addition of a tasteless nutritional powder such as AdVital. AdVital is high in calcium and vitamins A, D and E, which are particularly important nutrients for those over 70 years of age.7

Improvements to some of the social issues that the elderly face may also help alleviate the causes of malnutrition. This may include reducing social isolation through routinely organised activities and home visits from volunteer companions or carers. Occupational therapy can also be useful in identifying and aiding with the day-to-day challenges that the elderly may experience.

The elderly are at greater risk of being malnourished due to natural deterioration and underlying causes, which have a negative effect on their health and quality of life. However, the correct attention, alterations to diet and addition of supplements can have a great impact on improving nutritional intake and overall wellbeing.

Author: Jane Sandwood, Freelance Writer  |  Date: 26th September 2017