Could your mother be malnourished?

Shocking as it seems, in the United States a huge percentage of senior citizens suffer from malnutrition. Most of them aren't struggling with poverty; most are people like your mother and mine. They can afford healthy food; they just don't get around to eating it. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be this way--there are steps that can be taken to prevent malnourishment issues.


Why are so many senior citizens malnourished?
Our bodies change as we age. We appear different, we act different, and our insides operate in new ways. Proper nutrition is vital to maintaining health and keeping the body running in top condition, but many senior citizens experience changes that prevent that from happening. Malnourishment in the elderly can result from:  

  • Conflicts with medication:  Some medications need to be taken on an empty stomach, but seniors may forget or neglect to eat afterwards. Consuming three proportional, nutrient-rich meals a day is integral to maintaining health amongst seniors, and forgetting or neglecting to eat can quickly cause malnourishment.
  • Changes in taste. Once you reach age 50, you start to lose taste buds (just as you start to lose your sense of smell as you age). These factors can drastically alter the way certain things taste. Additionally, you produce less saliva as you age, which can make swallowing more difficult and uncomfortable. When consuming food becomes less enjoyable, it becomes less of a priority and can lead to malnourishment. 
  • Little or no appetite. Certain medications can change your appetite or give you an upset stomach. Not eating can be detrimental to your overall health and prevent you from obtaining the nutrients your body needs.
  • Depression. Depression can affect the way you eat, sleep, and think. Loss of appetite is common. Seniors experiencing depression are often malnourished because they do not focus on their physical health, but instead dwell on their mental health.  
  • Chronic illness.Chronic illness can cause malnourishment. Depending on the illness, consuming food can cause an upset stomach and vomiting, making it difficult to obtain the nutrients needed to heal.
  • New nutritional needs. Metabolism naturally slows down considerably in the elderly, both due to a lack of physical activity and to the aging of our bodies. Consequently, it's important to consume nutrient-rich foods that will benefit the body. Because your body is not burning as many calories as it once did, maintaining a healthy diet is vital to staying at a healthy weight and avoiding problems associated with obesity, like diabetes and heart disease.  Similarly, the way your body digests food changes a bit in old age, making it critical for you to consume foods that your body can process and absorb vitamins and nutrients from.

What are some simple ways to prevent malnutrition?
An elderly person's diet should contain the nutrients that they need to maintain their current health and ward off future health problems, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Inspire healthy eating habits amongst senior citizens with these dietary tips. 

  • Rethink your grains! Whole grains--like real (not instant) oatmeal, polenta and brown rice--are easy to digest and contain vital vitamins and nutrients an aging body needs to produce energy. At least half of the total grains consumed on a daily basis should be whole grains.
  • Proportion is everything. Eat the proper proportions or serving sizes to avoid weight gain. Create balanced meals of fruits, vegetables, proteins, whole grains, and fiber to stay regular.
  • Watch consumption. Pay attention to sugar and sodium levels in foods, and opt for foods low in these ingredients.
  • Look for fats! Consume healthy fats, like those found in seeds, nuts, and fish as opposed to saturated or trans fats.
  • Drink up. Our bodies need liquids to prevent dehydration and constipation. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, and eat foods with a high water content, like cucumbers and soups.
  • Supplement with vitamins. Take vitamins like calcium or B-12 to supplement the nutrients you don't get from your meals.

There is a saying: You are what you eat. That goes double for your mother as she ages. 


Ruth Folger Weiss is a blogger for Webster Park Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center, a nursing home in Rockland, MA.