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Understanding the Scope and Symptoms of Malnutrition in Older Adults

Aug 19 2019

None of us want to admit that we are getting older, but as we do, it is important to pay close attention to changes in our health. One common aspect of aging that often goes unnoticed is malnutrition.

Older adults are at substantial risk for malnutrition. Many factors can contribute to malnutrition and a 2016 study shows that 83 percent of adults aged 65 and older are susceptible.

Malnutrition stems from an improperly balanced diet and can be triggered by a variety of problems associated with the physical, cognitive, psychological and social factors of aging.

This article explores ways you can detect malnutrition in yourself or your loved ones.

Signs and Symptoms of Malnutrition

Ongoing malnutrition can lead to severe symptoms over time. However, there are ways to identify symptoms of malnutrition in loved ones and it all starts with a general sense of awareness.

1.Recent Health Changes

Often when older adults have one health problem they will develop another issue. Chronic illness, new medications, dental issues, abdominal pain or a diminished sense of taste and smell can all contribute to a decrease in appetite and malnutrition.

2.Weight Loss/Gain

Malnutrition can stem from a decreased intake of food, but also from an increase in the consumption of empty calories. Excessive fluctuations in weight are a good indicator of malnutrition.

3.Restricted Diets

It can be hard for older adults to adjust to new restrictions on food. Limits on salt, fat and sugar can make food seem bland and unappetizing, resulting in a lack of interest in eating.

4.Limited Income & Access to Food

As older adults age, they may have a limited budget for, or accessibility to groceries. Noticing increased stress over money or transportation could be an indicator of future malnutrition. 

5.Lack of Appetite

If food is no longer appealing to an older adult, then they could be at risk of malnutrition. Lack of appetite can come from new medications, depression or other illnesses. Consulting a doctor if a lack of appetite persists is essential to finding a treatment plan.


High consumption of alcohol interferes with the process for absorbing essential nutrients from food. While alcohol is high in calories, they are empty calories with little nutritional value.


If an older adult seems constantly tired or lethargic, it may be because their body cannot supply them with fuel, due to a lack of a healthy diet.


While chronic diarrhea can be caused by a plethora of medical issues, not absorbing the necessary nutrients is one of them. It is important to consult their doctor if chronic diarrhea persists.

Ways You Can Prevent Malnutrition

Once it is known that someone is suffering from malnutrition, it is important to take action right away.

1.Observe Their Eating Habits

Spending time with your loved one during their normal meal times can give you the opportunity to observe their eating habits. What and how much they eat could indicate malnutrition and give you the opportunity to start making changes.

2.Regular Doctor’s Visits

Scheduling time with your primary care physician and other doctors is an essential aspect of staying on top of your health. Primary care physicians can also help you establish an effective lifestyle plan. This may include changing medications, altering diet restrictions or consulting professional dietitians.

Check-in with your primary insurance provider to see what medical checkups are covered by your insurance. If you have a Medicare plan, you are eligible for free annual wellness visits.

3.Encourage Them to Eat Properly

Encouraging and teaching your loved ones how to prepare nutrient-rich meals can prevent malnutrition and provide them with more interest in eating.

It is important to continually encourage healthy eating until they are applying the concepts on their own.

4.Add Flavor to Boring Food

Often older adults are on a restricted diet or suffer from a decreased sense of taste or smell. Adding more vibrant flavors and spices to their meals will make it much more enjoyable and interesting to eat.

5.Plan Snack Times

Consistent eating throughout the day is advised for most diets, including seniors. Adding healthy snacks to their diet like cheese, fruit, smoothies or toast with nut butter provide nutrients and calories throughout the day.

6.Add Supplements

Research shows that older adults may require more of a specific nutrient than when they were younger. Factoring this into a diet may be difficult, so adding supplements can help provide what is missing.

7.Create Meal Events

Creating events around food is a fun way to get your loved ones more interested in what they eat. Plan meals together and encourage them to join events or programs where they can enjoy food with others. There are also programs that will deliver meals straight to their doors.

Malnutrition is a widespread problem that can be easily remedied. Keeping a watchful eye for the signs and symptoms of malnutrition in your loved ones will lead to a quicker and more substantial recovery.

  Author Bio: Christian Worstell is a health and lifestyle writer living in Raleigh, NC.