Preventing Malnutrition in Older Adults

Malnutrition is when your body doesn’t get enough nutrients from the foods you eat to work properly. Nutrients include fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. These substances give your body energy. They help your body grow and repair tissues. They also regulate bodily functions such as breathing and the beating of your heart.

As the U.S. population ages, malnourishment is a growing concern. Good nutrition is very important for all older adults. It is especially important for older adults who are ill or have been diagnosed with a chronic disease or dementia.

Malnutrition in older adults can lead to a number of health problems, including the following:

  • Unintentional weight loss.
  • Tiredness and fatigue (feeling out of energy).
  • Muscle weakness or loss of strength. This could lead to falls, which could cause broken bones or fractures.
  • Depression.
  • Problems with memory.
  • A weak immune system. This makes it hard for your body to fight off infections.
  • Anemia.

Because of these health problems, malnourished adults tend to make more visits to their doctor, the hospital, and even the emergency room. They don’t recover from surgery or other procedures as quickly as adults who are well nourished.

What causes malnutrition in older adults?

Malnutrition occurs when a person doesn’t have enough food or doesn’t eat enough healthy foods. A number of things may affect the amount and type of food that older adults eat. These include:

  • Health problems. Older adults may have health problems that cause a loss of appetite or make it hard to eat. This could include conditions such as dementia and other chronic illnesses. They may be on restricted diets that make foods taste bland. They may also have dental problems that make it hard to chew or swallow foods.
  • Medicines. Certain medicines can decrease appetite or affect the taste and smell of food.
  • Low income. Older adults may be on a fixed income. They may be paying for expensive medicines to help manage health conditions. They may have trouble paying for groceries, especially the healthy foods they need.
  • Disability. Older adults who have dementia or physical disabilities may not be able to shop for groceries or cook for themselves.
  • Social issues. Mealtimes can be social occasions. As we age, we may start to lose friends and family members. Older adults who usually eat alone may lose interest in cooking and eating.
  • Alcoholism can decrease appetite and affect how the body absorbs nutrients from food.
  • Depression in older adults can lead to loss of appetite.

It can be hard to tell if an older adult is malnourished. Check the refrigerator and pantry to find out the amount and type of food your loved one has on hand. Be sure to visit during mealtimes so you can observe their eating habits. Watch for signs of weight loss, such as clothing that is looser than normal. Easy bruising and slow wound healing are also signs of malnutrition.

Know which medicines your loved one takes, and ask a doctor or pharmacist if any of the medicines may cause loss of appetite. If your loved one is depressed or is an alcoholic, help him or her seek treatment.

Keep their doctor informed about what you observe. Ask the doctor about their risk of nutrition problems. Watch out for signs of the health problems listed above. If you suspect that your loved one has a medical condition that is causing malnutrition, help him or her seek treatment.

Path to improved wellness

To improve your loved one’s nutrition, try some of the following:

  • Encourage healthier food choices. The best foods are those that are full of nutrients, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Help your loved one limit his or her intake of solid fats, sugars, alcoholic beverages, and salt. Suggest ways to replace less healthy foods with healthier choices.
  • Snacking on healthy foods is a good way to get extra nutrients and calories between meals. It may be especially helpful for older adults who quickly get full at mealtimes.
  • Make food taste good again. If your loved one is on a restricted diet, herbs and spices can help restore flavor to bland foods. Just remember to avoid herb or spice blends that are heavy in salt.
  • Consider adding supplements to your loved one’s diet. He or she may benefit from a supplement shake or other nutritional supplements. Talk to their doctor about these options.
  • Encourage exercise. Even a little bit of exercise can help improve your loved one’s appetite and keep his or her bones and muscles strong.
  • Plan social activities. Make mealtimes and exercise a social activity. Take your loved one on a walk around the block. Encourage him or her to meet a neighbor or friend for lunch. Many restaurants offer discounts for seniors.

Things to Consider

Managing your health and nutrition as you age can seem like a difficult task. If you are helping your loved one, talk to their family doctor and ask for help when you need it. The doctor can talk to you about their risk for malnutrition, health conditions, and medicines.

You may need help making sure your loved one is eating right. Home health aides can help shop for groceries and prepare meals. Check with your local Council on Aging and other senior community resources and community programs, such as Meals on Wheels. They may be able to help you care for your loved one.


National Council on Aging

Meals on Wheels America

The National Resource Center on Nutrition and Aging: Nutrition, Food & Health