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.

Older adults who are seriously ill and those who have dementia or have lost weight are especially vulnerable to the effects of poor nutrition.

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:

  • Health concerns. Older adults often have health issues that can lead to decreased appetite or trouble eating, such as chronic illness, use of certain medications, difficulty swallowing or absorbing nutrients, or trouble chewing due to dental issues. A recent hospitalization might be accompanied by loss of appetite or other nutrition problems. In other cases, a diminished sense of taste or smell decreases appetite. Dementia also can contribute to malnutrition.
  • 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, 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 various nutrients. In addition, nutrients are lacking if alcohol is substituted for meals.
Sep. 23, 2011 See more In-depth