Malnutrition in older adults


The face of malnutrition may look a little different than you think. For one thing, it may be a lot older than you might imagine. Malnutrition doesn’t just affect starving children in poverty-stricken areas. It is a growing problem that affects untold numbers of children and senior citizens across the country.

In honor of Malnutrition Awareness Week™, celebrated this year on September 23 – 27, we’re taking a closer look at malnutrition in a two-part series that details this hidden epidemic that affects more and more people – of all ages – every year. Malnutrition Awareness Week was created by the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN) to raise awareness and knowledge about this often-ignored issue.

This month we’ll examine how malnutrition impacts the senior population.

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition occurs when your body gets inadequate nutrition. It can be caused by poor diet or even starvation if there is not enough food available to meet your body’s needs. Problems digesting food or absorbing nutrients may also cause malnutrition, as can certain medical conditions, or eating disorders.

The effects of malnutrition on your health and lifestyle are serious threats to your continued well-being. They include:

  • Reduced muscle function, which affects your ability to move, function, and retain your independence
  • A weakened immune system and diminished ability to battle infection and illness
  • Impaired ability to heal
  • Inability to tolerate and recover from surgery or other medical treatments

Why seniors?

As many as one out of two older adults in America are at risk for malnutrition, according to ASPEN.

Although limited access to food could play a part in the rising numbers, the cause of malnutrition in seniors is often more complicated than a simple lack of calories.

Although limited access to food could play a part in the rising numbers, the cause of malnutrition in seniors is often more complicated than a simple lack of calories. Issues that contribute to malnutrition in older adults include:

  • Changing dietary needs
  • Weakened sense of smell and taste
  • A slowdown in the digestive system
  • Chewing or swallowing difficulties
  • Declining ability to absorb nutrients
  • Disease and other health conditions that affect appetite

Recognize the signs

The warning signs of malnutrition are easy to overlook or attribute to some other cause. They include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Change in appetite
  • Baggy, too-large clothing
  • Inability to eat
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Muscle weakness and difficulty with daily activities
  • Changes in denture fit
  • Retained fluid or swelling

Several screening tools are available to help you self-evaluate whether you are at risk.

The Self-Mini Nutritional Assessment®, or Self-MNA®, is a nutrition screening and assessment used to identify people over 65 who are malnourished or in danger of developing malnutrition. It consists of six questions that detail your eating routine and whether it puts you at risk.

The Determine Checklist from the US Department of Agriculture is a series of statements about eating and drinking habits with a point value assigned to each. You circle the statements that apply to you and then add up the points to get your “nutritional score.”

Body mass index calculators, known as BMI calculators, measure your body fat in proportion with your height and weight. Adults with a BMI below 23 are considered underweight, which could indicate malnutrition is an issue.

If you are at risk

If you are at risk for malnutrition, there are steps you can take to reduce the chances it will have a lasting impact on your life.

  • Consult a dietitian to develop an individualized eating plan that addresses your needs
  • Discuss your nutritional status with your healthcare team
  • Connect with community programs that can provide nutritious, home-delivered meals
  • Monitor your weight and adjust your eating habits accordingly
  • Add nutritional supplements to your diet if you can’t eat enough to fulfill your dietary requirements
  • Avoid fad diets

Find a doctor

Search for a doctor that understands how to diagnose and treat the health challenges associated with aging in our provider directory. Or you can find one using a regional directory below:






Share your tips on getting adequate nutrition at #aging and #malnutrition readers @psjh.

Related resources

Aging Parents – Signs They Could Need Help

Are your elders eating enough?

Video – Malnutrition: A Hidden Epidemic in Older Adults

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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