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Malnutrition

Malnutrition Awareness

It is no secret that good nutrition can help reduce the risk of older adults contracting a number of illnesses.  Proper nourishment can also help to keep older adults healthy, active, and independently living in their communities. 

There are a variety of factors that can affect one's nutritional status and older adults are already at a higher risk of malnutrition compared to younger adults.

• 1 out of 2 older adults is at risk for malnutrition or is already malnourished.

• 16% of independent older adults are at high risk for malnutrition.

• Up to 60% of older adults in health care settings are malnourished.

• 9 million older adults cannot afford nutritious food.

• 1 in 4 adults (25%) aged 65 years or older either reduces meal sizes or skip meals.

• Tooth loss, poor dental health, loss of appetite, and changes in taste, which are a natural part of the aging process, are contributing factors to malnutrition.

The Illinois Department on Aging would like to increase awareness of this common, but unfavorable health condition so that we can help our Illinois Seniors stay healthy and happily living in their community!

Malnutrition is defined as too little or too much energy, protein, and nutrients that can negatively impact a person's body and its function. It can result from undernutrition or overnutrition and can affect anyone, but seniors over 65 years are at an increased risk. As we age, our daily eating habits and activities change, which can affect our nutrition status. The body does not digest and metabolize food as efficiently as it used to.

Undernutrition - is caused by not consuming enough calories, protein, or other nutrients. This occurs frequently in parts of the world that do not provide adequate access to food and clean drinking water. It can also occur because of an illness or surgery that impacts appetite or food consumption.

Overnutrition – is caused by consuming more calories than a person needs. A person can eat more calories than their body needs and be malnourished at the same time. Consuming too many calories and not enough variety of nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, beans, low-fat dairy, nuts, and seeds can lead to vitamin, mineral, or protein deficiencies. In the U.S., this is commonly seen in the hunger and overweight paradox, which occurs mostly in food insecure, impoverished areas.

Take a validated Self Mini Nutritional Assessment for adults 65 years and older (also available in Spanish). For extra assistance,view this guide for help with completing the malnutrition screening.

Take this shorter, validated Malnutrition Screening Tool, which is recommended by the Academy of Nutriton and Dietetics to be used to screen adults for malnutrition, regardless of age, medical history or setting.
  1. Myth: Only older adults are malnourished.

    Fact: Malnutrition affects people of all ages.  While it does affect older adults disproportionately, malnutrition can be a significant issue for everyone. 

  2. Myth: Only thin people are malnourished.

    Fact: Malnourished individuals can come in all sizes. People with malnutrition can be either underweight or overweight. Obese individuals often miss out on important nutrients, which can lead to malnutrition. 

  3. Myth: To treat malnutrition, just eat more food.

    Fact: Malnutrition cannot be prevented or treated by just eating more food. Malnourished individuals must carefully adjust their diet’s macronutrients and micronutrients to ensure they are getting the proper balance of all the nutrients their body requires. 

  4. Myth: There are no warning signs for malnutrition besides appearance.

    Fact: Malnutrition has many warning signs. It can include fatigue, muscle weakness, and increased illness/infection. Often, appearance alone does not mean someone is malnourished. 

  5. Myth: Weight loss is the only sign for malnutrition.

    Fact: Malnutrition can be caused by several factors besides weight loss.  Additional factors may include acute illness, poor dentition, depression, lack of mobility, and dementia.

A Guide for Adults – Factors that may cause or contribute to malnutrition:

• Chronic health conditions

• Gastrointestinal disorders (e.g ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, celiac disease)

• Limited income

• Depression

• Trouble swallowing/chewing

• Changing taste buds

• Poor dental health

• Dementia

• Lack of mobility

• Restricted diets

• Living alone

• Medication side effects

Tips to Help Prevent Malnutrition

• If you are on medications that decrease your appetite, ask your doctor if there are other options that do not contribute to poor appetite.

• Eat a variety of foods that provide nutrients such as potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 or consume foods that are fortified with vitamins and minerals (e.g. cow's milk, fruits, vegetables, tuna, salmon, turkey, whole grains).  Ask your doctor for a referral to see a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist if you think you may be at risk for malnutrition.

• Engage in types of exercise that are appropriate and enjoyable for you to help maintain/build muscle mass.

Always check with your doctor to see what types of exercise are appropriate for you and safe to do based on your health status.