Malnutrition in Seniors—Know the Signs

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A growing concern in the senior population is the problem of malnutrition. Malnutrition occurs when an individual’s diet fails to provide proper nutrition for the human body to maintain good health. This doesn’t always mean that there is a lack of food; many times malnutrition can result from consistently poor food choices.

Signs and Dangers of Malnutrition

Malnutrition in seniors can result in many health problems. Take notice this holiday season and look out for these common symptoms and results of malnutrition:

  • Weight loss
  • Unusual bruising or injuries that don’t seem to heal on their own
  • Muscle weakness, making the senior more susceptible to dangerous falls
  • Memory loss or cognitive decline
  • A weakened immune system, which can lead to getting sick more often, and cause minor illnesses to develop into more serious problems.

Malnutrition in seniors can stem from a number of causes. These include:

  • Oral, digestive, or general health problems. Many seniors may suffer from health issues that require restricted diets, and the foods they are allowed may be unappetizing or bland. They may have oral or dental problems that make chewing and swallowing difficult.
  • Decreased mobility. A senior with decreased mobility or declining fine motor skills may find it difficult to navigate the kitchen to prepare meals, and may resort to low-nutrition packaged snacks. Additionally, an individual suffering from dementia may forget to prepare meals, or may even lack the ability to venture out to a grocery to buy healthful foods.
  • Loss of appetite due to social isolation, depression, or medication. If an individual fails to take an interest in food, he or she will tend to choose easily accessible foods that don’t need to be prepared, which are often over-processed and lacking in proper nutrition. For example, he or she may choose to eat cookies or packaged snacks rather than taking the time to cook a proper chicken dinner, because it requires less effort. A senior living on his own may feel that preparing meals to eat alone requires too much effort. Additionally, some medications can lead to decreased appetite.
  • Financial constraints. Many seniors who are no longer working may no longer have the funds to purchase healthy foods, and may opt instead for cheaper, less nutritious choices.

How to Prevent Malnutrition

Help combat malnutrition in your senior by taking these steps:

  • Make mealtimes an enjoyable time. For a senior who has lost interest in preparing meals due to social isolation, try to arrange for friends or relatives to visit at mealtimes, or to have their meals at senior centers. If your loved one is restricted to unappealing foods, experiment with new spices, colors, and variety, and choose snacks that are nutrient-rich, such as nuts and cheeses.
  • Exercise and the outdoors can help increase appetite. Encourage your senior to engage in light activities such as walking. This can help with feelings of social isolation as well.
  • Ask your loved one about his/her eating habits, and try to ensure that there are always nutritious options at hand.
  • Always discuss medications with a doctor or pharmacist, and be aware if they may lead to loss of appetite or digestive problems.
  • Many communities have resources and programs for seniors, such as Meals on Wheels, which can help your senior with providing proper meals.

If you think you see symptoms of malnutrition in your loved one, always discuss your concerns with a healthcare provider.  Malnutrition can be difficult to detect, but can lead to a myriad of health problems over time. A doctor can identify underlying causes and can provide you with individual guidance and strategies to care for your loved one in the best way possible.

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