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Seven signs of malnutrition in older people

New Zealand’s nutrition scientists have a special interest in studying malnutrition in older people

In one study conducted by Professor Carol Wham, research suggests nearly a quarter of participants were found to be malnourished and 35% were at risk of malnutrition.[1]

Another study by Professor Wham explored the eating habits of older people. It suggested that some participants were consciously eating less because they recognised that they were moving less. Others regarded eating as a chore and reported rarely feeling hungry. [2] Participants also mentioned other contributing factors, such as changes in taste, difficulty chewing or swallowing, memory problems, medication side effects, restricted diets, reduced social eating and less access to food due to reduced mobility.

Not eating enough leads to a loss of muscle mass and strength, resulting in problems associated with frailty. Malnutrition also results in vitamin and mineral deficiencies that contribute to a reduced immune system, so infections are harder to fight and wounds take longer to heal. Are you concerned for yourself, a friend or a family member? Here are seven signs of malnourishment in older people.[3]

1. Reduced appetite/food intake in the past few months.

2. Slowing of walking speed or weakening of grip strength. If an older person is struggling to walk up a flight of stairs or around the block, or can they no longer open a can or jar, malnutrition could be part of the problem.

3. Increased falls or fractures can be due to multiple nutritional deficiencies, but particularly vitamin D, calcium, magnesium and protein.

4. Unintentional weight loss greater than 10% within the last 3-6 months.

5. BMI under 18.5.

6. BMI of less than 20 and unintentional weight loss greater than 5% within the last 3-6 months.

7. Shortness of breath is a sign of frailty caused by malnutrition. It can also be a sign of heart disease.

Top tips for reversing malnutrition

·Avoid “empty” calories, such as cake, biscuits, soft drinks, alcohol and white bread.

·Choose nutrient-rich foods, such as wholegrain breads and cereals, meat and meat alternatives, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, milk and other dairy products.

·Eat little and often, if you can’t manage much at once and to keep your appetite stimulated.

·Choose snacks that are high in protein and energy, such as nuts, cheese and yoghurt, bran muffins, eggs, smoothies.

·Fortify meals with cream, milk powder, cheese, avocado, nut butters, olive oil and yoghurt.

·Use local meal services, like Meals on Wheels

·Get help with meal plans and shopping.

·Make eating a social occasion whenever you can.

·Buy frozen ready to eat meals as a back up. To make the best choices, read the nutrition information panel on the packaging carefully.

·Cook once and eat twice (or more!). Store extras portioned up in the fridge or freezer for another time.



[3] Dr Natalie Luscombe-Marsh, Research Scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia


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