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senior home health malnutritionSenior home health experts indicate there are many factors that contribute to senior malnutrition.

It may be surprising to some, but senior malnutrition is a significant problem in the United States. Given that senior home health experts indicate that a lack of proper nutrition can lead to a weakened immune system, muscle weakness and a difficult time healing from wounds, identifying the causes of malnutrition and working to correct nutritional deficits is an important part of monitoring senior health.

Before determining how to identify seniors who may be suffering from malnutrition and how to intervene, it is important to consider the reasons why seniors may become malnourished. There is a tendency to assume that malnutrition is a problem that only low income seniors might face, but senior home health experts note that actually senior malnutrition is a far more complex issue and can be impacted by physical, social, emotional factors in addition to economic issues.

Physically, health issues – particularly dementia and dental health issues – can lead to decreased appetite or difficulty actually consuming food.  Other health issues identified by senior home health experts which can contribute to malnutrition include side effects of certain medications and conditions that prevent absorption of certain nutrients. In addition, food can become less appealing due to a decrease in the ability to taste or smell food due to certain medications or conditions, or the dietary restrictions in place to control certain medical conditions which require limiting the amounts of flavor enhancers like salt, fat and sugar in the diet. Alcoholism can affect nutrition as alcohol can interfere with digestion. Alcohol also presents a problem if non-nutritious calories from alcohol are consumed instead of nutritious foods.

Seniors who have found their social lives limited as they age may become more susceptible to malnutrition, especially if food was a social or family activity for them in the past, and they no longer have friends or family with whom to share daily meals.  Finding the energy to prepare meals only for themselves and facing the prospect of eating alone can impact how well a senior is eating, which can impact overall nutrition.

Some of these physical and social factors can impact seniors’ emotional health which can also factor into nutritional health.  Seniors who are depressed due to poor health, grief, loneliness, or isolation due to lack of mobility and few opportunities for social contact may find they do not have the appetite to eat the number of daily calories required to maintain adequate nutrition.  When they do eat, they are more likely to make unhealthy food choices.

Economic issues, of course, do play a significant role in malnutrition, when seniors may be inclined to make less healthy but cheaper choices when buying food due to living on a limited income.  Another significant economic factor is the cost of medications, where seniors may struggle to pay for expensive medications that cut into their grocery budget, forcing them to make difficult choices between medications and nutritious foods.

The complex causes of malnutrition can make it more difficult to identify it in senior adults.  Check back next week for the second part in this series on senior malnutrition, where senior home health experts will help identify ways to spot malnutrition in the senior population.

This is the first article in a series on senior malnutrition. The second article will offer information on how to spot malnutrition in seniors, and the final article will address recommendations from senior health experts on steps to take if malnutrition is suspected.