Warning Signs of Malnutrition in Elderly People

Unplanned weight loss, lack of appetite, reduced food intake, fatigue, muscle weakness…

All of these issues are warning signs of malnutrition in older adults. Malnutrition is no joke; left untreated for too long, it can lead to some serious health problems like diabetes and heart disease.

Since a considerable amount of seniors suffer from poor nutrition, it pays for them and their family members to know the early signs of this condition, so they can reverse its effects in time.

Dietary Needs of Older Adults

Our nutritional needs change as we age, which means we have to adjust our diets and lifestyles when we get older in order to remain healthy.

Vitamins and Minerals

The Food and Nutrition Board recommends that older adults intake higher daily amounts of certain vitamins and minerals, such as:

  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin D
  • Calcium

In addition, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that many seniors do not get enough potassium or dietary fiber in their diets (undernutrition), which can lead to additional problems like high blood pressure.

Senior nutrition facts sheet

Caloric Concerns

Metabolism also slows as we age, which means it’s harder for seniors to absorb the nutrients. It’s also simultaneously easier for them to overeat, even if they’re eating the same amount of calories as they have been for years.

As such, seniors need to be careful about what they eat. Their diets should be filled with foods that are nutrient dense and light on calories, such as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and low fat protein. In some cases, nutritional supplements may be necessary if they are not getting the nutrients they need from diet alone.

6 Symptoms of Malnutrition

Experts estimate that up to 50% of hospitalized older adults and up to 60% of institutionalized seniors experience malnutrition. It’s therefore important for older adults and their caregivers to know the signs of malnutrition; caught early enough, it’s possible to readily reverse its effects.

According to the National Council on Aging, warning signs of malnutrition include:

  1. Weakened immune system, such as slower wound healing
  2. Unintentional weight loss
  3. Muscle weakness
  4. Depression
  5. Appetite loss
  6. Fatigue

Importantly, malnutrition does not necessarily mean underweight; someone’s weight is not a surefire sign of malnutrition.

Common Causes of Malnutrition in the Elderly

There are several reasons why older adults might be at risk of malnutrition. Risk factors for elderly malnutrition include the following:

  1. Poor dental health
  2. Loss of dentures
  3. Limited or low income
  4. Depression
  5. Loss of appetite and altered eating habits
  6. Altered sense of taste and smell, which can cause a lack of interest in eating
  7. Difficulties swallowing
  8. Chronic medical conditions and disability
  9. Social and lifestyle factors
  10. Reduced caloric intake
  11. Loss of muscle mass

Dementia and Malnutrition Risk

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 50 million people worldwide have some kind of dementia. Dementia is the umbrella term for severe decline of cognitive functions to the point that it interferes with daily life. Importantly, experts associate dementia with heightened risk of malnutrition.

IADLs and Malnutrition Risk

Research shows a significant association between difficulty completing ADLs and IADLs and malnutrition risk. That means identifying ADL/IADL dependency is crucial for reducing risk of malnutrition in elderly people.

ADLs (activities of daily living), are daily activities necessary for a decent quality of life. Experts identify six basic, or physical, ADLs:

  1. Ambulating – moving about
  2. Feeding – feeding one’s self
  3. Dressing – selecting outfits and putting them on
  4. Personal hygiene -performing basic hygienic tasks
  5. Continence – holding off urination or bowel movements until a toilet is available
  6. Toileting – using the toilet

There are also ADLs that require complex thinking, known as IADLs (instrumental ADLs). The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) identifies 12 IADLs:

  1. Care of others
  2. Care of pets
  3. Child rearing
  4. Communication management
  5. Driving and community mobility
  6. Financial management
  7. Health management and maintenance
  8. Home establishment and management
  9. Meal prep and cleanup
  10. Religious and spiritual activities and expression
  11. Safety and emergency maintenance
  12. Shopping

When someone cannot complete ADLs or IADLs on their own, it’s time for help. That can mean an aging loved one moving in with family members or it can mean that the elderly adult moves into a specialized facility, such as an assisted living or memory care community, to receive the care they need.

If you suspect that you or a loved one requires help that only a senior living community can provide, you can use our directory to browse thousands of senior living locations all across the country.

How is Malnutrition Treated in the Elderly?

The answer to this question depends on what is causing malnutrition in the first place. For example, if an older person is malnourished because they aren’t eating enough foods that contain key nutrients, the solution might be for them to alter their diet. In other words, the person could work with a dietitian to craft a diet full of nutrient-dense foods.

If the malnutrition is due to forgetting to eat regularly, it could be a sign that the individual has some form of dementia. In this case, the individual would require specialized eldercare, perhaps from a memory care facility, to address both their malnutrition and other symptoms resulting from their dementia.

Final Thoughts

Eating healthy is more important than ever as you grow older. From reducing the risk of new health conditions and diminishing the side effects of chronic illnesses, there isn’t much about your health that can’t be improved by eating better. While eating right can be challenging, it’s important to prioritize healthy mealtimes to reduce the risk of malnutrition and the health problems that come with it.

If you suspect that you or your loved one suffers from malnutrition, see a specialist right away. Caught early enough, it’s possible to reverse the side effects of this condition.