Older Adults: Good Nutritional Health Supports Independence

Man and Woman Buying Vegetables
March 2nd, 2020

Our nutritional health can dramatically affect our ability to ward off diseases, recover from surgeries and live long healthy lives. Yet many of us face obstacles that make it hard to eat well.

As a result, millions of older Americans are at risk of malnutrition. Some research estimates that almost 14% of adults over 60 were at risk of going hungry and becoming undernourished or malnourished. These conditions have serious implications for our physical and emotional health:

  • When we don’t get enough to eat, our executive functioning and critical thinking can become impaired.
  • When we don’t consume sufficient amounts of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, our ability to fend off disease is lower, wounds are harder to heal, and our strength and stability are reduced.
  • When we don’t know where our next meal is coming from, we may experience high levels of anxiety that can lead to depression and poor mental health.
  • When we don’t have access to healthy food on a regular basis, we’re more likely to need emergency care or hospitalization.

Since any one of these situations could lead to a loss of independence, it’s vital for older adults and their family members to pay attention to the symptoms of malnutrition.

Signs of Undernourishment or Malnutrition

Detecting poor nutrition requires vigilance, as symptoms may be confused with illness or the side effects of medications. Pay extra attention if you take multiple medications, have had a recent illness or hospitalization, or are living with a chronic illness. Some signs to watch for include:

  • Mood changes
  • Pallor or changes in skin tone
  • Confusion or reduced cognitive ability
  • Lethargy
  • Diminished appetite
  • Rapid weight gain or loss
  • Environmental evidence such as spoiled or out-of-date food in the house; limited available foods; or signs that kitchen is not being used

We can lower the likelihood of poor nutrition by addressing the most common causes.

6 Causes of Malnutrition in Older Adults

1. Tight budgets

We can stretch our budgets by looking for online coupons and other discounts on healthy alternatives or by choosing comparable store labels instead of national brands. Online services now offer low-cost home delivery of fresh produce that isn’t aesthetically suitable for grocery stores but is otherwise perfectly healthy. Food banks are another excellent source of low- or no-cost grocery items, and many partner with local growers to make fresh fruits and vegetables available as well. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provides coupons for use at farmers’ markets and roadside stands. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a searchable directory of food assistance programs.

2. Medications

Some medications adversely affect our appetite, change our sense of taste or our body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Call or visit your pharmacist to discuss how the prescription and over-the-counter drugs you take impact your appetite and review any interactions or meal-related requirements. Then ask your doctor or nurse to help you address any related challenges that keep you from eating well.

3. Physical limitations and chronic illness

Many of us live with limitations and illness that can make shopping, cooking and eating difficult – and malnutrition more likely. Some treatments, like chemotherapy or radiation, sap our appetites. There are kitchen utensils on the market specifically designed for people with arthritis or reduced strength, which make preparing meals easier and less painful. A sturdy non-slip stool provides support for cooks who don’t have the stamina or stability to stand. Meals on Wheels delivers home-cooked meals to adults whose mobility issues or medical conditions keep them at home. Your local department on aging can help you find resources like these.

4. Emotional, mental and cognitive conditions

When we feel lonely and isolated, we’re far less apt to eat well. Many local agencies offer home visits for older adults, which can ease feelings of loneliness and stimulate appetite. Senior centers, houses of worship and community spaces frequently host group meals at low or no cost specifically designed for people 65 and older – and provide free transportation for those who need it. Dining with others is a good way to eat well and increase companionship and social interaction. Mental and cognitive conditions like depression, anxiety and dementia are frequent contributors to poor nutrition – and must be tackled with your care team. Ask your physician or psychologist for specific recommendations for eating right while living with these conditions.

5. Oral health

Inflamed gums, ill-fitting dentures and sore teeth can make eating so painful we may choose foods based on texture, not nutritional value – or we may not eat at all. Ask your dentist about dental issues you may have that might affect your ability to maintain good nutrition. If you experience dentophobia (fear of all people and things dentistry), ask your nurse or doctor to take a look at any painful or numb areas in your mouth. Get more tips on oral health.

6. Sensory impairments

As we age we may experience sensory losses that negatively impact nutrition. The most common are vision and hearing loss, and decreased tactile sensitivity. From misreading labels, not hearing the kitchen timer or not properly sensing heat, these conditions can significantly affect our nutritional well-being. Taste buds lose sensitivity over time and the ability to smell may decline as well. To compensate, we may over-salt our food, which can become problematic, especially for seniors on a low-sodium diet. Enhancing flavor with fresh ingredients, herbs and lemon juice instead of salt helps, as do healthy sauces and gravies. Cooking differently textured foods can also improve our sensory enjoyment and ensure we eat enough to stay well.

Any one of these issues can negatively impact nutritional health. Stay on top of these factors and don’t be ashamed to discuss them with your family, friends and professional caregivers. Together, we can eat and age well.

Don’t disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be suffering from a healthcare condition.