Spotting Malnutrition Among Seniors

By Debra BenAvram

What does malnutrition look like? It might be very different than you think. In fact, all too frequently, it looks a lot like my dad.

Not long ago, Dad was admitted to the hospital. Because he is not underweight, he did not appear malnourished. Yet he had no appetite and grew weaker. Despite the jokes about hospital food, when you aren’t getting the calories you need—because of illness-induced loss of appetite, gastrointestinal symptoms or a reduced ability to chew or swallow—the risks are real. Because his nutritional state was compromised, it took Dad longer to recover.

Unfortunately, my dad’s experience isn’t uncommon. Older people are among the populations most susceptible to the negative impacts of disease-related malnutrition. In fact, the elderly account for the majority of malnutrition cases in United States.

The causes of malnutrition in older adults are not simple, but rather a complex blend of physical, social and psychological issues. For example, an elderly man living alone may become malnourished because he is experiencing depression and has lost his appetite. Or an elderly woman who has lost her driver’s license may be unable to get to the store for fresh groceries.

Adding to these challenges, the symptoms of disease-related malnutrition can often mirror what people see as simply signs of aging:

  • Unplanned weight loss;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Feeling weak or tired;
  • Swelling or fluid accumulation;
  • Ability to eat only in small amounts.

So, how do we address this issue? Certainly, it is critical for clinicians to work to promptly diagnose and treat malnourished patients. It is equally important for patients and their families to be knowledgeable and able to identify the signs of malnutrition in themselves and their loved ones. When seeing any of the signs listed above, don’t hesitate—ask about nutrition.

Because I know the signs of malnutrition, I insisted on a nutrition consultation for my dad. But not everyone has the information they need. That’s why the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition is hosting its annual Malnutrition Awareness Week, September 18–22. Our intention is to increase awareness and drive progress toward early nutrition intervention so that stories like my dad’s become a thing of the past.

Debra BenAvram, FASAE, CAE, is CEO, the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition in Silver Spring, Md.