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What caregivers should know: Causes of malnutrition in elderly adults

Malnutrition in its basic definition means the lack of nutrition. Even if the person is eating food on a regular basis, they may be lacking the essential nutrients to function properly. Being undernourished is harmful to anyone at any age, especially if it is prolonged and undiagnosed. It is especially hard for the elderly because of other factors that come with ageing in general. What causes malnutrition? Here we explore the physical, social, and mental causes with tips on how to best intervene.1

Physical Causes

 You may have noticed that your elderly loved ones want saltier and sweeter food to compensate for their loss of taste. That is one of the signs of losing taste and it greatly affects healthy appetite because they can no longer enjoy normal food. As we also lose muscle, called Sarcopenia, we have less body mass, leading to a slowed down metabolism, which makes us less hungry. Any illness or pre-existing conditions leads to malnutrition due to inflammation . When taking care of a loved one, monitor their oral health  because when it is in poor condition, chewing and swallowing becomes difficult, thus limiting what foods they can eat.2, 3

Social and Mental Causes

 With the rising cost of living, we see people work well past their retirement age so that they can afford food and medication. For that, malnutrition can be caused by socioeconomic reasons. With societal pressure to always look your best, a senior with a declining physical and cognitive ability will feel isolated. With the added fact that a senior’s other loved ones may no longer be with them, depression onsets, thus affecting their ability to eat. Being social is human nature and like the saying that food tastes better with good company, a senior who lives alone may make poorer food choices or not eat all together.2, 3

Suggest ways to intervene

If you notice a loved one has unexplained weight loss, is feeling fatigued often, eating significantly less, and inflammation, give them the support they need to reduce further malnutrition complications. Simple ways to intervene are2, 3:

  • Ask what they would like to eat and cater anyway you can
  • Make sure they get regular physical check ups including check ups on oral
  • Encourage light exercise to strength training to stimulate appetite
  • Make sure they get mental health check ups
  • Change their living environment (eg. sign up to social clubs, find hobbies, connection to other family, or get them interested in current modern activities)
  • Increase portion size at times they are known to eat most
  • Add healthy flavour enhancing ingredients like herbs and spices
  • Change food formats
  • Include fruits and vegetables high in fiber to keep fuller longer
  • Provide a variety of appropriate oral nutrition supplements (eg. Ensure Nutrition Supplement, scientifically formulated with over 40 years of expertise, comes complete with high quality protein, fiber, minerals and vitamins in every serving)4

Nothing is better than natural nutrient dense food with healthy regular physical exercise combination. Nutritional supplements can be seen as an option, but it should never replace food. As nutritional supplements come in many formats and as many ingredients, finding the right one may be difficult. To find which one is appropriate for your loved one, always consult with a medical professional to minimize injuries in other areas and maximize malnutrition treatment.