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Signs of Malnutrition in Older Adults

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A close-up foot of an elderly showing cracked dry skin as a sign of malnutrition.

Recognizing Malnutrition

Everyone knows food provides energy. The quality and quantity of food you consume can significantly impact your health and mood. Whether you’re a gourmet connoisseur or simply eat for fuel, your diet must provide the nutrients your body needs to support your lifestyle.

Yet, malnutrition affects as many as 50% of older adults. Moreover, the condition is often underrecognized and undertreated in seniors, leading to high healthcare costs for managing malnutrition-related diseases.

Older adults have more significant risk factors for nutrition challenges. Recognizing signs and learning ways to prevent malnutrition can help seniors, their families, and their caregivers protect their health and well-being.

What Is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition is a condition resulting from an inappropriate consumption of nutrients. 

There are 2 forms:

  • Undernutrition is when a person does not consume enough nutrients or calories.
  • Overnutrition is when a person consumes too many nutrients or calories.

While malnutrition can cause physical changes, someone suffering from malnutrition can appear normal (particularly in the short-term or early stages). For example, an overweight individual may eat enough calories but not enough nutrients for healthy body function. 

For example, broccoli has many beneficial nutrients—including protein—but doesn’t provide all the nutrients a person needs. You’d also need to eat a lot of broccoli to reach a healthy amount of recommended calories and nutrients.

Depending on activity level, adults over 50 should consume about 1,600–2,600 for women and about 2,000–2,800 for men. A single serving of broccoli (100 grams) is approximately 34 calories. Imagine eating more than 58 platefuls of broccoli daily! 

That’s why adults need a balanced diet comprised of multiple food groups to support their health—and enjoy at least some food they eat.

A middle-aged woman sitting on a couch in the living room holding her head with her hands shows fatigue and irritability.

Signs of Malnutrition

Poor nutrition can affect health in many ways, including energy levels, organ health, and immune system function. The signs and symptoms of malnutrition can vary depending on the type and the individual. 

For example, a decreased appetite can be a normal part of aging. Seniors are usually less physically active and have a lower metabolic rate. So a gradual decrease in appetite may not be a concern. Still, it’s crucial to watch for other signs to assess if it’s a serious problem.

Signs of undernutrition usually include:

  • Anxiety, depression, or irritability
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Delayed wound healing
  • Dry skin & hair
  • Fatigue or poor concentration
  • Hollow cheeks & sunken eyes
  • Stomach swelling
  • Unintentional weight loss

The most recognized sign of overnutrition is obesity. However, seniors dealing with overnutrition can also have low levels of vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamins A and C. Their diets may also be higher in sodium and fat.

Causes of Malnutrition

While appetite changes can be a normal part of aging, older adults have a greater risk of malnutrition because their dietary needs change. Medications, lifestyle changes, and health conditions can affect eating habits, appetite, and digestion.

Common physical health factors that can lead to malnutrition in older adults include:

  • Chewing & swallowing problems
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Decreased ability to absorb nutrients
  • Changes to the digestive system & metabolism
  • Poor sense of taste

Seniors may face physical and mental barriers that make meal preparation challenging. Physical barriers can include limited transportation or mobility problems, which can get in the way of grocery shopping or cooking. Seniors may be reluctant to ask for help or may not realize they need it.

Older adults experiencing cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, can face unique challenges. For example, they believe they’ve already eaten, develop unexpected food preferences, or may not recognize food. Distractions during mealtime or large portions can also be overwhelming.

Depression is another risk factor common among older adults. Seniors who suffer from depression and loneliness can make poor diet choices.

Preventing Malnutrition in Seniors

Seniors, their loved ones, and caregivers can work together to prevent malnutrition. Knowing and recognizing the signs can help seniors receive the appropriate treatment. However, prevention is another crucial part of senior care. Here are a few ways older adults or caregivers can help restore appetite and prevent malnutrition.

Add quality, not quantity. Staring at a giant plate of food can be intimating or uncomfortable when you don’t feel like eating. Instead of overwhelming seniors with too much food, focus on food quality, including the nutrients and the taste. Also, try serving smaller portions with more frequent meals or snacks.

Counter medication side effects. Seniors tend to take multiple medications to help manage their health. Yet, many medicines can cause dry mouth. The sensation can affect taste, mouthfeel, and swallowing. Chewing gum, drinking more water, and brushing often can help stimulate saliva production to improve taste.

Consult a healthcare provider. Getting help from a medical professional, including a doctor or nutrition specialist, can help seniors learn about their nutritional needs. Additionally, healthcare providers can offer nutrition resources, such as meal planning tools.

Enjoy meals together. Humans are social creatures, and we enjoy sharing food, so eating alone can decrease appetite. But conversely, eating together can make eating more enjoyable and inspire positive food choices! It can also benefit seniors with dementia when caregivers or loved ones model positive eating habits.

Increase physical activity. There are many benefits to staying active while aging. Physical activity also stimulates appetite.

Visit the dentist. Dental and oral problems can impact the ability to chew, swallow, or enjoy food. Seniors should visit the dentist regularly to assess oral health, including their teeth, gums, jaw, and surrounding tissue.

Enjoy Meals Together

Preventing malnutrition is easier when seniors have access to the necessary resources and care. Parsons House Cypress is a senior living community that emphasizes personal care and strong social programming. Our residents can enjoy nutritious chef-prepared meals and share mealtime with friends.

We serve our elders with unconditional love and work diligently to help our residents feel at home in our community. We welcome seniors and their families to book a visit or contact us to learn more about Parsons House!

Written by Parsons House Cypress

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