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Malnutrition and Seniors: Ensuring the Elderly are Not Malnourished

  • Date: 2014/05/29
  • Disabled World - Disabled World
  • Synopsis : Information relating to malnutrition in seniors including causes and tips on improving nutrition levels in the elderly.

Main Document

Malnutrition is a condition that occurs when a person's body does not receive enough nutrients from the foods they eat to work appropriately. Nutrients include carbohydrates, vitamins, fats, proteins and minerals which are substances that give a person's body energy. They help a person's body to grow, repair tissues, as well as regulate processes such as the beating of their heart and breathing.

A serious condition that occurs when a person's diet does not contain the right amount of nutrients. Malnutrition is caused by either an inadequate diet or a problem absorbing nutrients from food. The most common symptom of under-nutrition is unplanned weight loss - usually losing more than 5-10% of your body weight within three to six months. Malnutrition increases the risk of infection and infectious disease, and moderate malnutrition weakens every part of the immune system. Malnutrition and being underweight are more common in the elderly than in adults of other ages. The World Health Organization has reported hunger and related malnutrition as the greatest single threat to the world's public health.

In the United States of America it is estimated that 3.7 million seniors are malnourished. Good nutrition is very important for seniors. It is particularly important for seniors who have been ill, or who have been diagnosed with dementia or a form of chronic disease. Malnutrition in seniors may lead to several health issues, to include:

  • Anemia
  • Depression
  • Poor memory
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • A weak immune system
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Muscle weakness/loss of strength
Chart showing health issues related to malnutrition in seniors
Chart showing health issues related to malnutrition in seniors

Because of these health issues, malnourished seniors have an increased risk of falls. They also tend to visit their doctors more often, as well as the hospital and emergency room. Seniors who are malnourished do not recover from surgery or other procedures as quickly as adults who receive appropriate nutrition.

Causes of Malnutrition in Seniors

Malnutrition due to consumption of unhealthy foods, or a lack of appropriate foods, is a serious issue in America. Several things might affect the amount and type of food seniors eat. These things may include:

Depression: Depression in seniors can lead to a loss of appetite.

Low Income: The simple fact is that seniors might have trouble paying for food.

Medications: Certain medications may decrease a person's appetite, or affect the smell and taste of food.

Alcoholism: Alcoholism may decrease a person's appetite and affect how their body absorbs nutrients from the foods they do eat.

Disability: Seniors who experience dementia or physical forms of disabilities might not have the ability to shop for food, or cook it for themselves.

Health Issues: Seniors might experience health issues that cause a loss of appetite, or make it difficult for them to eat. They may be on restricted diets that make foods taste bland. Seniors might also experience dental issues that make it hard to chew or swallow food.

Detecting Mal-nourishment in Seniors

Detecting whether or not a senior in your life is malnourished can be difficult. Check their pantry and refrigerator to find out the types of foods and the amounts of those foods they have available. Make sure you visit during mealtimes so you can watch their eating habits. Keep their doctor informed about what you have observed.

Ask the person's doctor about their risk of nutritional issues and watch out for the health issues mentioned in this article. Be aware of which medications they take and ask a doctor or a pharmacist if any of the medications have the potential to cause a loss of appetite. If the person is an alcoholic or experiences depression, assist them with finding treatment. If you think they have a medical condition that is causing them to experience malnutrition, help them to find treatment.

Helping to Improve a Senior's Nutrition

Due to the potential for negative health consequences, it is important for people to watch out for the seniors in their lives and their nutritional well-being. In attempts to improve a senior's nutrition, there are some different things to try. These things include the following:

Encourage Exercise: Even a small amount of exercise can help to improve the person's appetite and keep their muscles and bones strong.

Healthy Snack Foods: Snacking on foods that are healthy is a great way to get extra nutrients and calories in between meals. It might be especially helpful for seniors who get full quickly at mealtimes.

Good Tasting Food: Make food taste good! If a person is on a restricted diet - spices and herbs can help to restore flavor to foods that are bland. Remember to avoid herb/spice blends that have a lot of salt.

Social Activities: Make mealtimes and exercise a social activity. Take the person on a walk around the block, for example. Encourage them to meet their neighbor or a friend for lunch. A number of restaurants offer seniors discounts on meals.

Supplements: Consider adding supplements to the person's diet. If dietary changes are not providing the person with enough nutrients, they might benefit from a nutritional supplement or a supplement shake. Discuss these options with the person's doctor.

Chart showing suggestions for improving nutrition in seniors
Chart showing suggestions for improving nutrition in seniors

Encourage Healthier Food Choices: Foods that are full of nutrients such as vegetables, fruits, lean meats and whole grains are best. Help the person to limit their intake of sugars, solid fats, salt, and alcoholic drinks. Suggest ways to replace foods that are less healthy with ones that are healthier.

Do not be afraid to ask for help! If you have questions or need assistance, the person's doctor is a good resource. A doctor can talk with you about the person's risk for malnutrition, as well as any concerns you may have about their medications. You can also get information on community resources and organizations that can help you care for the person.

Brain Mal-nourishment and Alzheimer's

A study has found that the aging process is often times accompanied by a slow and chronic starvation of the brain. Reduced blood glucose seems to be one of the major triggers of a biochemical process that causes some forms of Alzheimer's disease. Scientists from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine suggest that when a person's brain does not receive enough glucose; something that may happen when cardiovascular disease restricts blood flow in arteries to a person's brain, a process begins that ultimately produces sticky lumps of protein that appear to be a cause of Alzheimer's disease.

The lead author, Robert Vassar, discovered a key brain protein is altered when a person's brain does not have a sufficient supply of energy. The altered protein called, 'elF2alpha,' increases the production of an enzyme that flips a switch to produce the sticky lumps of protein. Mr. Vassar worked with both people and mice during his research process. He stated, "This finding is significant because it suggests that improving blood flow to the brain might be an effective therapeutic approach to prevent or treat Alzheimer's."

A preventive strategy people can follow to improve the flow of blood to their brain is the pursuit of exercise, as well as reducing cholesterol and managing hypertension. Starting an exercise regimen may help people to avoid the process Mr. Vassar describes. For those who already experience symptoms, 'vasodilators,' can increase the flow of blood and might help the delivery of glucose and oxygen to the brain. There is also the potential for medications to be designed that block the elF2alpha protein that starts the formation of protein clumps referred to as, 'amyloid plaques.'

One estimate suggests around 10 million baby boomers will develop Alzheimer's disease during their lifetimes. The disease usually starts after a person reaches the age of 60 and the risk increases as a person ages. The costs; both direct and indirect, of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementias is around $148 Billion each year.

It was Mr. Vassar himself who, a decade ago, discovered the enzyme, 'BACE1,' which is responsible for making the sticky, fiber-like clumps of protein that form outside neurons and disrupt their ability to send messages. The cause of the high levels of the protein in people with Alzheimer's disease has been unknown. Mr. Vassar's study now reveals that energy deprivation in the brain may be the trigger that starts the process that forms plaques in Alzheimer's disease.

He states that his work suggests Alzheimer's disease might result from a less severe type of energy deprivation that happens in a stroke. Instead of dying, a person's brain cells react by increasing BACE1 - something that might be a protective response in the short term, yet harmful over the long term. Mr. Vassar said, "A stroke is a blockage that prevents blood flow and produces cell death in an acute, dramatic event."

Mr. Vassar says it is a slow and insidious process, one that takes place over a number of years, where people experience a low level of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis in their brain. It is so mild that people do not even notice it, yet is has an effect over time because it is producing a chronic reduction in the flow of their blood. When people reach a certain age, some might get increased levels of the enzymes that cause a build-up of the plaques. "Then they start falling off the cliff," according to Mr. Vassar. Clearly, appropriate nutrition and exercise are very important.

Malnutrition can cause people with Alzheimer's disease to deteriorate
alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/news_article.phpnewsID=812

Malnourishment
www.pure-wellness.net/Malnourishment.htm

Malnourishment and undernourishment
www.leeds.ac.uk/yawya/bioarchaeology/Malnourishment%20and%20undernourishment.html

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