The Relationship Between Aging and Malnutrition
As we age, we’re confronted with physical issues that we never had to deal with in our younger days. We tire more easily, and we nap more frequently. Our senses may weaken, and we don’t see, hear or smell as well as we used to. We feel aches and pains that we never felt before. There is another issue that we don’t always think about that can play a partial role in all of the above, and that is malnutrition. When we think about malnutrition, what springs to mind might be an image of a starving child, or victims of famine in a country far away. We tend not to think about it happening right in front of our eyes in our elderly relatives or neighbors, or in ourselves. And yet, it is a growing concern.
To understand malnutrition, we must first define it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t had anything to eat for days or weeks on end. In fact, you might well have been eating regularly every day. Malnutrition can still occur because the foods you are eating don’t have enough nutrients to keep your body working properly. Nutrients will include proper ratios of fat, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Our bodies require these substances in varying amounts in order to keep our bodies working properly, maintain our energy, and keep our muscles strong. The correct ratio of these substances in our bodies also plays an important role in regulating bodily functions such as strengthening our immune system, breathing, and keeping our hearts beating regularly.
Just because you’re eating something doesn’t mean you can’t be malnourished though. Remember the news story last year about the British teenager who became blind after eating a diet consisting of Pringles potato chips, French fries, white bread, processed ham, and sausage? His weight and body mass index (BMI) were normal for a person of his age. He told doctors those were the only foods he had eaten since grade school. Doctors identified vitamin B12 deficiency, low copper and selenium levels, a high zinc level, reduced vitamin D levels and bone density, according to a statement from the University of Bristol. By the time this was discovered he was 17 years old, and his vision damage was permanent.
Factors that can cause malnutrition in elderly individuals include:
- Chronic health problems that cause loss of appetite or make it hard to eat. This can include dementia, which can cause a person to forget to eat.
- Certain medications decrease appetite by affecting the smell and taste of foods.
- Dental problems that make it hard to chew or swallow foods.
- Financial issues, such as having to pay for expensive medicines to manage other health conditions, leaving little money for groceries and healthy foods.
- Alcoholism, which can decrease appetite and affect how the body absorbs nutrients.
- Social isolation that occurs as we age. Eating can be a social activity, but as we age, we start losing friends and family members. Older adults who usually eat alone may lose interest in cooking and eating.
To improve your nutrition, include some fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins (cottage cheese, lean meats, peanut butter) in your daily diet. If that’s too hard, have some of the commercial nutrition drinks available (Boost, Ensure), and drink them daily. Your doctor can give you additional information and assist you in making sure you maintain a healthy diet, to make sure you stay healthy.