Nutrition

Basic Facts

Nutrition for Older Adults

Getting older means you now have special nutritional needs. This can make it more difficult to eat the right balance of nutritious foods. For example, your body shape may have changed, you may be less physically active, or you may have less interest in food than you did before.  These changes can occur so gradually that you may not notice them while they are happening. The changes can result from illnesses or accidents, genetic patterns, or social, psychological, and economic factors.

Because of these changes, it may be necessary to change how you eat. If you do not take your new needs into consideration when you eat, you may be at risk for malnutrition (nutrient imbalance).

Malnutrition is more and more common in the older population. This is a serious problem, because malnutrition can be very bad for your health. It is linked to higher death rates, longer stays in the hospital, and more disability and complications. Also, malnutrition raises the risk of infections, anemia, skin problems, weakness, fatigue, and electrolyte imbalances in your blood. Unfortunately, malnutrition is often not identified. Even healthcare professionals may not notice that their patients are malnourished.

The Most Common Types of Malnutrition in Older People

Malnutrition refers both to “under-nutrition” and “over-nutrition.”

  • Under-nutrition occurs when you do not eat enough food. This may lead to unintended weight loss, and eventually many significant health problems. People who have severe illness may experience extreme weight loss—sometimes known as “wasting” or cachexia. This is most likely to occur in older patients with serious diseases such as AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, heart failure, cancer, or organ failure (including end-stage liver, kidney, or lung disease).
  • Over-nutrition can occur when you become less physically active with age but continue to eat as you did when you were younger. This can put you at risk for becoming overweight or obese (having a body mass index, or BMI, above 30). Carrying extra weight is a risk factor for many serious diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and diabetes. However, even in the case of over-nutrition, you may be missing adequate levels of important nutrients.

How Common is Malnutrition in Older Adults?

Many people over the age of 65 are either under- or over-nourished. Among older people living in their own homes, about 1 in 10 live with under-nutrition. Many healthy older adults report that they skip at least one meal a day.  For people over age 65 who become hospitalized, their risk of becoming undernourished may rise to as much as 60%. Up to 85% of people who live in long-term care facilities experience malnutrition in some form.  

On the other hand, as much as one-third of people over the age of 65 suffer from over-nutrition. That is, they eat too much. The result is high rates of being overweight and obese for people in this age group.

Updated: January 2018