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Why Being Watchful for Signs of Malnutrition in Older Adults Matters

By Lisa Weitzman | 04/15/2021

An older adult unloading a grocery bag

Have you noticed recently that an older adult in your life has recently lost weight without putting in a deliberate effort? Is this person eating poorly or expressing a loss in appetite? Does this person have limited access to nutrient-rich food? If so, they may be suffering from malnutrition.

Malnutrition is most simply defined as a nutritional imbalance that can potentially affect any person, regardless of weight. Chronic health conditions combined with inadequate nutrition can often negatively impact older adults and prevent their bodies from absorbing the nutrients they need for healthy aging. Depression; social isolation; mental health challenges; embarrassment; lack of food; functional changes that limit the ability to shop for, prepare or even eat food; and financial struggles further increase the risk for malnutrition.

National malnutrition reports suggest that prolonged malnutrition can cause changes in a loved one’s body composition and in their ability to manage routine daily tasks. Even more alarming, malnutrition can lead to a greater risk for health complications and infections, which in turn might require your loved one to receive more care and medications, and necessitate hospital stays up to 6 days longer than someone not at nutritional risk would need (Barker LA, Gout BS, Crowe TC. Hospital malnutrition: Prevalence, identification and impact on patients and the healthcare system. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011;8: 514–527). Because of this, nutrition is considered a vital sign when it comes to the health of older adults.

But the good news is that malnutrition is preventable in patient-centered care, which means that there are things we can do to address – and even prevent – malnutrition in our loved one, such as:

  • Ensuring that a loved one is screened at every doctor’s visit so that their medical team can keep a close eye on malnutrition risk factors. 
  • Engaging a loved one and their physicians in conversation about the role of nutrition as a core component of our loved one’s medical treatment plan.
  • Encouraging providers to adopt innovative solutions to make it easier for a loved one to follow a nutrition plan, including designing meals to meet specific dietary needs, preparing meals with a consistency a loved one can easily chew and swallow and providing access to nutritious food at hospitals and outpatient clinics
  • Advocating with health care providers for coordinated nutrition education and counseling, and with local and state officials for increased access to healthy food.
  • When it comes to keeping a loved ones healthy and safe, food may indeed be one of the best medicines!