Senior health: How to prevent and detect malnutrition
Malnutrition is a serious senior health issue. Know the warning signs and how to help an older loved one avoid poor nutrition.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Good nutrition is critical to overall health and well-being — yet many older adults are at risk of inadequate nutrition. Know the causes and signs of nutrition problems in older adults, as well as steps you can take to ensure a nutrient-rich diet for an older loved one.
Problems caused by malnutrition
Malnutrition in older adults can lead to various health concerns, including:
- A weak immune system, which increases the risk of infections
- Poor wound healing
- Muscle weakness, which can lead to falls and fractures
In addition, malnutrition can lead to further disinterest in eating or lack of appetite — which only makes the problem worse.
How malnutrition begins
The causes of malnutrition might seem straightforward — too little food or a diet lacking in nutrients. In reality, though, malnutrition is often caused by a combination of physical, social and psychological issues. For example:
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- Health concerns. Older adults often have health problems, such as dementia or dental issues, that can lead to decreased appetite or trouble eating. Other factors that might play a role include a chronic illness, use of certain medications, difficulty swallowing or absorbing nutrients, a recent hospitalization, or a diminished sense of taste or smell.
- Restricted diets. Dietary restrictions — such as limits on salt, fat, protein or sugar — can help manage certain medical conditions, but might also contribute to inadequate eating.
- Limited income. Some older adults might have trouble affording groceries, especially if they're taking expensive medications.
- Reduced social contact. Older adults who eat alone might not enjoy meals as before, causing them to lose interest in cooking and eating.
- Depression. Grief, loneliness, failing health, lack of mobility and other factors might contribute to depression — causing loss of appetite.
- Alcoholism. Too much alcohol can interfere with the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Nutrients might also be lacking if alcohol is substituted for meals.
See more In-depth
- Ritchie C. Geriatric nutrition: Nutritional issues in older adults. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed July 28, 2014.
- Johansson Y, et al. Malnutrition in a home-living older population: Prevalence, incidence and risk factors. A prospective study. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2009;18:1354.
- Eating well as you get older. National Institute on Aging. http://nihseniorhealth.gov/eatingwellasyougetolder/benefitsofeatingwell/01.html. Accessed July 28, 2014.
- Halter JB, et al. Hazzard's Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology. 6th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2009. http://www.accessmedicine.com/resourceTOC.aspx?resourceID=540. Accessed July 28, 2014.
- Shepherd A. Nutrition through the life span. Part 3: Adults aged 65 years and over. British Journal of Nursing. 2009;18:301.
- Gramlich L. Nutrition status in patients with sustained heavy alcohol use. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed July 28, 2014.
- Smell and taste: Spice of life. National Institute on Aging. http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/smell-and-taste. Accessed July 28, 2014.