What Malnutrition in Seniors Looks Like

When we think of malnutrition in seniors, it’s common to envision an older adult who looks frail and underweight. However, malnutrition doesn’t only happen to those who lack access to healthy foods or suffer from hunger. Malnutrition is widely prevalent in older adults, and because the signs and symptoms can be hidden from others, it often goes unidentified.

Maplewood’s dietician, Maria Gleason, explained how seniors can lose track of what they are eating and its nutritional value, “I feel that malnutrition sneaks up on the elderly. Some causes are related to a decline in a medical condition such as chewing or swallowing difficulties. Because of this, they may eat less protein, such as meat, cheeses, and nuts.  We find they are usually less social, show signs of physical and mental decline which may make food preparation more difficult, especially if they are on their own at home. As people age, they need more nutrients because their bodies are less efficient at using them. Most elderly people eat less which can lead to muscle wasting, which then can lead to falls. They also experience a decrease in taste, smell and appetite which additionally leads to eating less.”

Malnutrition can look different on each individual and can take place in those who are both underweight and overweight. Older adults can become malnourished for several reasons. Some chronic diseases, which are prevalent among older adults, can increase the risk of developing malnutrition. Cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic conditions can affect our appetite and eating habits, change our metabolism and cause other changes in our dietary needs. Often, it’s a combination of physical, social, and physiological issues that lead to malnutrition, especially in older adults.

Causes of Malnutrition in Older Adults
Malnutrition in seniors is a common yet under-recognized problem. While the causes of malnutrition might seem obvious, it’s a more complex phenomenon than most understand. Malnutrition can be caused and exacerbated by different factors, all of which can harm one’s long-term health. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common causes of malnutrition in seniors include the following:

Age-related changes. As we age we undergo physical changes that can affect appetite. Our senses of taste, smell and hunger levels can decline with age, which reduce the urgency and enjoyment that we normally associate with eating. Activity levels are likely to decrease over time too, which may slow metabolism and overall appetite.
Living alone. Older adults who live alone are more likely to experience feelings of depression, which can cause a lack of appetite. A person who lives alone will more often miss out on the social pleasure of companionship-dining or may become disinterested in preparing food for only themself. Older adults living alone are more likely to lose track of their nutrition and eating habits than those who live in residential communities.
Dental problems. Those with poor dental health might find it painful to chew and swallow, making eating meals a difficult experience.
Dementia. Cognitive issues caused by Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia can make it difficult to remember to replenish food supplies, prepare meals, or even eat.
Interacts with medications. As older adults work to manage chronic conditions or illness through medication, side effects can cause changes in appetite. Some medications can cause problems with absorbing nutrients, contributing to malnutrition.
Restricted diets. Dietary restrictions, such as limiting salt, fat, and sugar, can lead to inadequate eating and malnutrition.

Effects of Malnutrition on the Body
According to the National Council on Aging, malnutrition threatens our overall health. Malnutrition can weaken bones and muscles, which can make everyday tasks feel difficult and even unsafe. Our mobility, posture, and overall strength will decline when we’re malnourished and increase our risk of fall-related injuries.
When our bodies lack proper nutrition, our immune systems suffer. Our nutrition intake can influence how we recover from injury, respond to chemotherapy and fight off illnesses. When we are undernourished, our bodies lack the energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals to protect themselves.
Severe malnutrition can also harm our organs and damage their ability to function. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which often accompany malnutrition, can accelerate eye disease that can ultimately lead to vision loss. Those who are malnourished can lose neurons in the brain, which can impair speech, decision-making, and memory.

Monitoring Nutrition and Preventing Malnutrition
For older adults who live alone and without care, malnutrition can be hard to identify without knowing the risk factors. Those who live in assisted living facilities or retirement communities traditionally have access to a wider range of nutritious foods and have staff available to monitor their nutrition. Caregivers and family members should consider the following tips to monitor their loved one’s nutrition and prevent malnourishment:

Monitor weight
Tracking your loved one’s weight will help identify any sudden or drastic changes that might be contributing to malnutrition. Changes in how clothing fits can also indicate weight loss for those who are non-ambulatory.

Observe eating habits
Take time to observe your loved one’s eating habits during meal times. Note which foods your loved one is eating and how much they can consume.

Keep track of medications
You might consider bringing a list of medications and the dosages to a health care provider to see if there might be an interaction causing a change in appetite or nutrition absorption.

Make meals a time for socialization
Those who share meals are much more likely to enjoy their meal and consume it. Older adults in a senior living community — in independent living or an assisted living setting — eat together and participate in social programs that encourage proper nutrition.

Encourage physical activity
In addition to the well-known benefits of increased strength and flexibility, light exercise can help stimulate the appetite. Talk to a health professional about appropriate fitness activities for yourself or a loved one.

Take care of oral health conditions
Addressing dental problems can make mealtimes more enjoyable and decrease the risk of malnutrition. In recent years, it’s been noted that oral health has a significant effect on overall health. In short, take care of your mouth, and your mouth will take care of you.

Improving Nutrition
If you or your loved one struggles with appetite, there are strategies that can help. Focusing on nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats will keep you feeling full and nourished. Using spices and herbs while preparing meals can increase interest in eating and appetite.
It’s important to consult your healthcare provider or nutritionist if you or your loved one feels they might be at risk of malnutrition. These professionals can also recommend safe supplements, like nutrition drinks or vitamins.

Eating Well at Maplewood Senior Living
Maplewood Senior Living communities have dedicated nutritionists and chefs that plan meals using nutrient-dense ingredients, designed to prevent malnutrition in seniors. To learn more about our offerings or to schedule a tour, please contact us.