Senior malnutrition is on the rise quiet simply because seniors are on the rise. In 2011, baby boomers started turning 65. In 2030 there will be twice as many seniors as there were in 2000 according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Seniors will be 20 percent of the population. Malnutrition is often perpetuated among seniors because of poor dentition, difficulty swallowing, decreased appetite, and lack of access to healthy foods for adults on a lower income. This lower intake of nutrients over time leads to muscle loss, also known as sarcopenia. Sometimes fat loss also occurs, but a significantly higher number of seniors are experiencing a weight gain with malnutrition. This occurs when their diet is low in nutrients but high in calories and they also become more sedentary. There is a new phrase for this phenomenon: “sarcopenic obesity” and it has been referred to by geriatric researchers as “the confluence of two epidemics” that may indicate a “growing financial problem in the health care system in developed countries”.
What is the reason for the increased health care burden? Malnourished people who are ill don’t get well as easily as when they are well-nourished. For example, patients diagnosed with malnutrition have a length of stay three times longer than those who do not arrive in a state of malnutrition. Patients who are malnourished prior to undergoing surgery have a 4 times higher risk of developing a pressure ulcer during the healing process. Malnutrition contributes to hospital readmission rates. A study published in the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition November 2014 stated that the annual burden of patients with 8 particular chronic diseases who were also experiencing malnutrition at the same time was $156.7 billion, or $508 per U.S. resident.
The Joint Commission, the organization responsible for ensuring most hospitals in the U.S. are compliant with a group of standards for hospital care, have stated that reducing malnutrition is now a national goal.
What can we do to help turn this tide in the seniors we know? Some of my thoughts are that we get to know what healthy foods are their favorites and encourage them. See if they need help getting to a dentist to re-fit dentures. Drop by some easy-to-grab snacks, particularly ones high in protein like canned tuna, cheese, boiled eggs, and peanut butter. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains sometimes require more work to prepare than a senior feels like it’s worth, so those in ready-to-eat form would also be good choices to offer as compared to convenience foods or sweets. Plan a social meal with them every now and then if they usually have to eat alone. Pay special attention to their intake for a few weeks after a hospitalization. To help further avoid muscle loss, go with them for walks, encourage them to check out our local indoor walking programs through Churchill County Parks and Recreation or at the Senior Citizens Center, or help them explore other physical activities they enjoy that use all major muscle groups.
Debbie Coblentz is a registered dietitian living in Churchill County. Your comments in response to this article are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.