Aging & Health A to Z
Causes & Symptoms
Researchers have identified a number of risk factors that may increase your chance of becoming malnourished as you get older. These include physical, social, and medical factors.
Physical issues that can impact on a good diet are:
- general loss of appetite
- bad teeth or problems with chewing
- problems with swallowing, causing choking or food going down “the wrong way”
- a feeling of being full too early (early satiety)
- dexterity problems, such as severe arthritis [link] that may make it difficult to hold utensils or feed oneself
- sensory problems, such as changes in taste and smell and vision
- overall reduction in ability to digest and absorb many foods, because less stomach acid and digestive enzymes are produced in older people
- mobility or transportation difficulties that make food shopping too much of a challenge.
Social risk factors that make it harder to eat well include:
- living alone (particularly for older men)
- being confined to a hospital, nursing home, or rehabilitation center
- financial issues (for example: having to make choices whether to buy necessary medicines, pay the rent or heating bill, or purchase food)
- limited education about healthy nutrition
- cultural or religious traditions, allergies, or food intolerances that may limit food options.
Some medical conditions may increase the risk of poor nutrition:
- recent surgery or hospital stay
- alcohol or substance abuse
- cognitive impairment (dementia of any kind, such as Alzheimer’s Disease)
- inability to exercise
- chronic or acute pain
- medications that decrease appetite, prevent nutrients from being absorbed, or upset digestion (cause constipation or other intestinal problems)
- medical conditions that require patients to limit their intake of salt, fat, protein, or sugar, making foods bland and tasteless.
Symptoms and Warning Signs
Two obvious signs of malnutrition are:
- Loss or increase of appetite
- Unintended weight loss or gain
Some less obvious warning signs include:
- Dull, dry hair
- Dry eyes
- Receding gums
- Loss of sensation
- Physical weakness
Researchers have found that people in long-term residences who consistently leave more than a quarter of their food on the plate at the end of a meal are at high risk of being undernourished.
Updated: March 2012
Posted: March 2012