Malnutrition in Older Individuals
Older individuals are at a particularly high risk of malnutrition because of specific co-morbidities, oral issues (such as compromised chewing/swallowing), appetite challenges and natural decline in senses such as smell and taste. Malnutrition typically occurs as a result of unhealthy, nutrient negative diets that are higher in refined carbohydrates/sugar and inflammatory fats. Older individuals also experience changes in body composition and energy expenditure, leading to different nutritional needs than younger people.
Signs of malnutrition in the elderly include: anemia, lethargy, mood changes, muscle weakness, muscle loss, difficulty recovering from illness, pale/cold skin, fatigue, inadequate wound healing, digestive issues, hair loss, weight loss, dry skin and cognitive impairment. Often times malnutrition has to get severe before noticeable symptoms arise and many chronic illnesses can in turn, be influenced by nutritional status. A common example of this is sarcopenia which is a loss in muscle mass due suboptimal nutrient status, lack of activity and and other complicating medical conditions. In general, the most common nutrient deficiencies in older individuals include vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, folate, B12, B6, vitamin E and vitamin C.
How can you prevent malnutrition in older individuals? Make sure dental issues, chewing or swallowing problems are properly addressed, maintain a healthy weight, stay active and making an effort to eat a nutrient dense diet is key. Cooking with fresh herbs can be useful in addressing taste and smell decline. Focusing on plant based foods and lean protein will ensure sufficient nutrient, protein and fiber requirements. Avoiding excess sugar, processed foods and fast foods can increase chances in maintaining optimal nutrient status. It is also important to note that avoiding alcohol, tobacco and addressing any GI issues that may contribute to malabsorption are important to address. Taking a good quality multivitamin and multi-mineral, along with eating smaller meals throughout the day may also aid in appetite challenges that older individuals experience.