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Health Risks of Poor Nutrition in Seniors

An assortment of healthy food including strawberries, broccoli, and spinach

It’s an age-old adage, “you are what you eat.” And while food does contain the building blocks our bodies need to heal and fuel themselves, when we’re younger, we have a little more leeway in what we put on our plate. But as we age, what we don’t eat can start to affect our overall health and wellness. Our later years are also when a lifetime of bad eating habits and the effects of poor nutrition and diet can start to catch up with us. In fact, many of the diseases that affect senior health are the result of dietary factors, which can then be compounded by changes that naturally occur as we age.

This post will discuss how critical proper senior nutrition is and the health risks of poor nutrition.

Health Problems Caused by Malnutrition

The effects of poor nutrition and diet can lead to a variety of senior health concerns, including:

  • A weakened immune system, which increases the risk of infections
  • Poor wound healing
  • Muscle weakness and decreased bone mass, which can lead to falls and fractures
  • A higher risk of hospitalization
  • An increased risk of death

How Malnutrition Happens

Malnutrition is often thought of as either too little food or a diet lacking in the right nutrients. But with seniors, malnutrition is actually much more complex than just what you have (or don’t have) in the cupboard. A poor diet can also be caused by a combination of physical, social and psychological issues, and each one plays a role in providing proper senior nutrition.

  • Normal age-related changes: Taste, smell and appetite generally decline with age, making it more difficult to enjoy eating and keep regular eating habits.
  • Illness: Disease-related inflammation and illnesses can contribute to declines in appetite and changes in how the body processes nutrients.
  • Trouble eating: Difficulty chewing or swallowing, poor dental health, or losing the dexterity required to use tableware can make eating less enjoyable and cause discomfort.
  • Dementia: Behavioral or memory problems from Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia can result in forgetting to eat, not buying groceries or other irregular food habits.
  • Medications: Some medications can affect appetite and nutrient absorption.
  • Restricted diets: Dietary restrictions for managing medical conditions — like limits on salt, fat or sugar — can also contribute to inadequate eating or not knowing what to eat.
  • Limited income: If you’re taking expensive medications, nutrient-rich foods can seem too expensive.
  • Reduced social contact: Having to constantly eat alone can cause you to enjoy mealtime less and/or lose interest in cooking and eating.
  • Limited access to food: If you can’t drive or have trouble walking, you may find it difficult to go shopping.
  • Depression: Grief, loneliness, failing health, lack of mobility, and other factors might contribute to depression, which can cause a loss of appetite.
  • Alcoholism: Too much alcohol can interfere with the digestion and absorption of nutrients. It can also result in poor eating habits.

Improving Overall Nutrition

Mealtime strategies to help you or your loved one maintain a healthy diet and good eating habits include the following:

  • Nutrient-rich foods: Plan meals with nutrient-rich foods that include a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and lean meats.
  • Herbs and spices: Use herbs and spices to add flavor to meals and improve interest in eating.
  • Healthy snacks: Plan nutrient-rich snacks between meals like fruits, vegetables or low-fat dairy products.
  • Nutritional supplements: Use supplemental nutrition drinks to help with calorie intake. You can also add egg whites or whey powder to meals to increase proteins without adding saturated fats.

Malnutrition Prevention

If you’re worried about a parent or loved one’s eating habits, here are some suggestions on how to help them eat better while not intruding on their independence.

  • Monitor weight: Help your loved one check their weight at home and keep a weekly record. Changes in how clothes fit can also indicate weight loss.
  • Observe habits: Spend mealtimes together to see what kinds of food your family member eats and how much.
  • Monitor medications: Keep a record of all your loved one’s medications, the reason for each medication, dosages, treatment schedules and possible side effects.
  • What’s for dinner?: Help plan healthy meals or prepare meals ahead of time. You can also help prepare a shopping list or shop together and offer money-saving shopping choices.
  • Use local services: Contact area agencies that provide at-home meal deliveries, in-home visits from nurses or dietitians, access to a food pantry, or other nutrition services. The local Area Agency on Aging or a county social worker should be able to provide information about local services.
  • Make meals social events: Drop by during mealtime or occasionally invite your loved one over for dinner. You can also go to a restaurant that offers senior discounts, or encourage them to join a social group that dines together.
  • Encourage regular physical activity: Even light daily exercise can stimulate appetite and strengthen bones and muscles.

Talk to Your Doctor

Talk to your loved one’s doctor about any concerns you have regarding your family member’s weight, changes in appetite, or other concerns about health and nutrition. They can help with:

  • Regularly monitoring weight and screening for malnutrition
  • Assessing for medical conditions that may be affecting weight loss or nutritional health
  • Treating underlying conditions causing malnutrition
  • Changing a restricted diet for diabetes or other medical conditions
  • Recommending an appropriate daily calorie intake
  • Recommending vitamin and mineral supplements
  • Changing prescription medications

Learn How a Senior Living Community Can Help

Life Care Services® owns and operates senior living communities offering maintenance-free lifestyles all across the country. Residents enjoy chef-prepared meals, consultations with a registered nutritionist, and a holistic approach to wellness. To find a community near you, use our location tool.