National Nutrition Month: How to Recognize and Prevent Senior Malnutrition

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Nutrition has far-reaching effects on our wellbeing, influencing everything from physical health to mood to energy levels and even cognitive function. As we age, nutrition has an even greater impact on our quality of life. Unfortunately, due to the myriad physiologic and lifestyle changes that accompany aging, many seniors don’t maintain a sufficiently healthy diet or consume the quality of nutrition they need to feel their best.

Chronic health problems can limit a senior’s ability to get to the grocery store on a regular basis or prepare homemade meals. Grief from loss of a spouse can also impact a senior’s energy levels, decreasing their motivation to cook healthy food for themselves. Or they may simply not want to sit down to dinner alone.

For these reasons and many more, malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies are more common amongst the elderly than in the general population. Malnutrition weakens the immune system, increasing risk for infection and disease, slows the wound healing process, and contributes to muscle weakness, which can lead to falls and fractures.

If you have an aging parent, it’s important to be educated on the early symptoms of malnutrition so that you can spot them and correct the problem while it’s still mild.

Symptoms of Senior Malnutrition:

–       Weight loss
–       Breathing difficulties
–       Depression
–       Tiredness, fatigue, apathy
–       Irritability
–       Increased feelings of cold
–       Slower healing times for injury and wounds
–       Longer recovery period after illness
–       Higher risk of complications after surgery
–       Hair loss

Because some of the symptoms of malnutrition mimic symptoms of other conditions common to the senior population, malnutrition is often mistaken for other chronic illnesses. The best thing you can do for your loved one is to educate yourself and pay attention to their health and habits so that you can spot the problem for what it is.

What you can do to help prevent senior malnutrition:

  • Observe. Pay attention to your loved one’s eating habits and watch for any changes in their weight or routines. Share meals at home with them on a regular basis—not just on holidays, which don’t reflect normal eating habits for anyone.
  • Cook. Lacking the energy or motivation to prepare balanced meals is one of the single biggest barriers to good nutrition in seniors. If you leave nearby to your loved one, prepare and deliver a home-cooked meal for them at least once a week. Make enough for them to have leftovers that they can reheat throughout the week. 
  • Socialize. Depression is both a symptom and a cause of malnutrition and poor dietary habits. When one is feeling down, it’s harder to feel motivated to do much of anything, including eat healthfully. Engage your loved one in regular calls, visits, and social activities to help them keep the blues at bay.
  • Exercise. Getting regular exercise can help stimulate appetite in addition to having its own health benefits. Encourage your loved one to go on a daily walk with a friend, sign up for a fitness class in their community, or even partner with a personal trainer—whatever it takes to get them moving (and eating!) on a regular basis.
  • Shop. Once a senior is no longer able to drive on their own, it becomes very difficult for them to keep a well-stocked pantry and fridge full of healthy foods. Ask your loved one to make a shopping list and offer to make a weekly grocery run for them. Combine their list with yours to cut down on trips, and spend a little time visiting with them while you help them put their groceries away afterward.

Maintaining good nutrition is essential to extending a high quality of life for seniors. Taking steps early on to prevent and correct signs of malnutrition will increase your loved one’s wellbeing, independence, and longevity. 

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