It is important to eat well at any age, but it's especially important to make nutrition a top priority for older Americans. Some 15 to 50% of older Americans struggle with malnutrition. Symptoms can include loss of appetite, lethargy, disorientation and weight loss. Fortunately, it's a relatively easy problem to fix for most people; understanding health benefits of a proper diet for the elderly is the first step in doing so.
Why does malnutrition occur?
Up to 30% of seniors skip a meal a day on a regular basis, with 16% consuming less than 1000 calories a day – not enough to maintain adequate health. This can happen because the older person has a poor appetite, has difficulty cooking and/or eating, is forgetful (and therefore forgets to eat), is depressed, has no understanding of the health benefits of proper nutrition, or can't afford to eat well on a limited income. Dental problems that cause pain or make it difficult to chew can also make it unpleasant to eat; because eating is not pleasurable, it's just easier to skip it.
What can be done about it?
Refit ill-fitting dentures and visit the dentist to correct difficulties with chewing. Provide nutrient-dense, tasty, easy-to-eat foods like cut up vegetables, fruit and cheese for snacking. Programs for the elderly like Meals-on-Wheels programs deliver hot meals right to the door for those who have trouble cooking for themselves.
Health benefits of proper nutrition for the elderly
- A stronger immune system
Aging causes detrimental changes in the immune system, such as thymus deterioration and defective signaling and function of natural killer cells that thwart certain tumors and microbial infections. These changes are even more severe in someone who is malnourished. Good nutrition has a supportive effect that helps the immune system function as efficiently as possible despite aging's effects.
- Faster recovery if illness or injury occurs
Nutritious foods provide the building blocks necessary for recovery from illness or injury. This is especially important for the elderly because they are already less resilient than younger people. Even when someone can understand health benefits of good nutrition, he or she may not want to eat anyway because his/her appetite is poor. Make sure that the older person is getting enough calories from nutritious foods. Focus on utilizing favorite foods whenever possible, to whet appetite and make eating more enticing.
- Better cognitive function
The brain's main fuel source is glucose. If an elderly person is not consuming enough calories and/or if those calories are not from nutritious foods, cognitive dysfunction can result; it may even be misdiagnosed as actual mental decline caused by diseases such as Alzheimer's, even though the problem is correctable.
A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids has also been shown to improve cognitive decline in the elderly. Although it may be contraindicated with certain medications such as blood thinners, it is generally recognized as safe for otherwise healthy older people. Take advantage of omega-3 benefits by eating fish or other omega-3 rich foods like ground flaxseed as recommended by doctors or nutritionists, or take fish oil supplements.
- Greater energy
Nutritious food is the body's optimal fuel and is needed for energy. A healthful, nutritious diet that contains complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables, and adequate amounts of lean protein (with some low fat dairy if it can be tolerated) improves not just mood and cognitive function, but physical energy as well.
The elderly are often at risk for or suffer from malnutrition, but it doesn't have to be that way. Providing support and education on understanding health benefits of proper nutrition is the first step to correcting this problem.