Malnutrition and unintentional weight loss are commonly associated with older adults age 65 years and older. While the risks for malnutrition increase as we get older, caregivers can take steps to address these risks. According to the Mayo Clinic, malnutrition can lead to serious health issues including:
- Muscle weakness and decreased bone mass
- Poor wound healing
- A weakened immune system, which increases the risk of infections
- A higher risk for hospitalization
There are many reasons malnutrition occurs in older adults including:
Sensory changes can affect dietary intake. Due to age, seniors may have an altered sense of taste, smell, and vision. For example, the perception of bitter and sour flavors may trigger a dislike for citrus fruits or certain vegetables. As a result, many older adults enjoy food less and tend to eat smaller portions.
Certain medications can cause appetite loss, dry mouth, and a decrease in nutrient absorption in the body.
A limited diet due to chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease, hypertension, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes may also prevent a patient from receiving all the nutrients that he needs.
Difficulty swallowing and feeding oneself as is common among post-stroke patients and dementia patients can cause malnutrition.
Older adults generally live on a tighter budget and pay a substantial amount for medications each month. With less money in the bank, they may skimp on healthier food items.
Often homebound and left with inadequate transportation, many older adults eat alone regularly. This lack of social interaction during mealtime and the reduction in overall food intake due to decreased hunger sensations can result in poor nutrition.
How Caregivers Can Help Prevent Malnutrition
Caregivers can help older adults by regularly monitoring their weight and observing them during mealtime. What are they eating? How much are they eating? They can help seniors make healthy food choices by shopping with them or preparing a shopping list in advance. Daily exercise should be encouraged as it not only strengthens bones and muscles, it can also stimulate the appetite.
The patient’s doctor should also monitor the patient’s weight and check for other underlying conditions. Any medications and vitamins should be periodically assessed and evaluated for side effects that might affect food intake and nutrient absorption.
By paying attention to the signs of malnutrition as well as proactively working with older adults to prevent it, caregivers will have a significant and positive impact on their health.