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 and decreased bone mass, which can lead to falls and fractures
- A higher risk of hospitalization
- An increased risk of death
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:
Nov. 16, 2017
- 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, a diminished sense of taste or smell, or abdominal issues, such as pain or bloating.
- 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.
- Limited access to food. Many older adults do not drive and may not have access to food or the right types of food.
- 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
- Fávaro-Moreira NC, et al. Risk factors for malnutrition in older adults: A systematic review of the literature based on longitudinal data. Advanced Nutrition. 2016;7:507.
- Fillit HM, et al. Malnutrition in older adults. In: Brocklehurst's Textbook of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier; 2017. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed June 29, 2017.
- Ritchie C. Geriatric nutrition: Nutritional issues in older adults. https://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed July 29, 2017.
- Fillit HM, et al. Health promotion for community-living older adults. In: Brocklehurst's Textbook of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier; 2017. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed June 29, 2017.
- Nutrition after 50: Tips and recipes. American Institute for Cancer Research. http://www.aicr.org/. Accessed June 29, 2017.
- Zeratsky KA (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. June 29, 2017.
- Takahashi PY (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. June 30, 2017.