Good nutrition helps older adults maintain or improve their health, and it supports the physical dimension of wellness. In fact, good nutrition can help preserve lean body mass, which is crucial for active aging.
However, malnutrition undermines active aging. And, unfortunately, malnutrition is much more common among older adults than many people think. As many as one out of every two older adults are at risk for malnutrition.
September 23 to 27 is Malnutrition Awareness Week,TM making it a great time to learn more about malnutrition and how it can negatively impact active aging. Malnutrition Awareness Week is a multiorganizational campaign established by the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN) to increase awareness of malnutrition and offer education on identification and treatment. This year, Malnutrition Awareness Week has expanded its reach globally as ASPEN has partnered with the Canadian Nutrition Society (CNS) and the British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (BAPEN).
Malnutrition, or the lack of proper nutrients, poses a significant safety risk for older adults and can contribute to avoidable harm, functional limitations and loss of independence. Physiological, psychological and socioeconomic factors place older adults at an increased risk of malnutrition. Older adults commonly face chronic diseases and food insecurity, and both greatly increase the risk of malnutrition.
Malnutrition occurs across the healthcare and senior-living spectrum and can be found in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, long-term care facilities and senior communities. A primary goal of the 2019 Malnutrition Awareness Week is to drive progress toward early nutrition intervention, which can be accomplished in any setting. ASPEN is offering educational webinars throughout the week for professionals who are interested in implementing nutrition interventions.
Below are some ideas to help active aging professionals help prevent, identify and treat malnutrition.
- Know the signs of malnutrition. Knowing what to look for can help active aging professionals identify malnutrition and find treatment for the older adults they serve. Some major signs of malnutrition include unplanned weight loss, decreased appetite and unusual weakness or fatigue. Professionals too often fail to recognize these markers of malnutrition because they attribute the symptoms to disease or the natural process of aging.
- Educate yourself, your colleagues and the older adults you work with about the issue of malnutrition. Malnutrition is associated with many negative consequences. Raising awareness of this issue helps ensure that malnourished older adults can be identified and treated before the condition worsens.
- Address food insecurity. Food insecurity can lead to a poor diet quality and malnutrition. If older adults are food insecure, direct them to community resources to help meet their needs. The September 27 Malnutrition Awareness Week webinar specifically focuses on addressing food insecurity.
- Integrate malnutrition risk identification and care into existing care transitions. Often, as older adults transition from one point of care to another, their nutrition status is not evaluated or properly documented, causing malnutrition to go unnoticed. A better transition between community care, acute care and post-acute care can help adequately identify malnutrition and facilitate better outcomes.
- Refer malnourished adults to a healthcare professional. If you identify a malnourished older adult, refer him or her to a primary care physician or a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics makes it easy to find a nutrition professional.
- Become involved with Malnutrition Awareness Week to learn more about your role in malnutrition care, and spread the word to the active aging community!
Jay Mirtallo is professor emeritus, The Ohio State University, College of Pharmacy, and clinical practice specialist for the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN). His mission is to facilitate advances in nutrition care.