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A comprehensive federal agenda for older adult nutrition can help support active aging

With National Nutrition MonthR concluding in March, now is a good time to focus on nutrition overall and the challenges older adults can face to access nutritious food. Active aging is very difficult to achieve without proper nutrition; malnutrition can lead to a higher risk of falls and to loss of muscle mass (also known as sarcopenia), a big concern for the aging population.

We need to do more at a national level to combat these issues. Considering a comprehensive federal agenda for older adult nutrition would be a good first step.

Increased federal funding is a start

Even prior to the pandemic, poor nutritional status and food insecurity were growing crises among older Americans. Malnutrition continues as a risk for up to one out of every two older adults. Approximately 7.3% (5.3 million) of Americans 60 and over were food insecure in 2018. Federal nutrition programs have become increasingly important in helping to lower these rates.

Congress has taken some steps during the pandemic to increase funding and flexibility for older adult nutrition programs. Most significantly, in March 2021, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act, which includes important funding and policies regarding older adult malnutrition.

The American Rescue Plan Act added $750 million in emergency funding for Older Americans Act (OAA) nutrition programs, extended the 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and added $37 million for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides food boxes to older adults.

National Nutrition Month

More policy actions needed

A comprehensive federal agenda for older adult nutrition includes additional areas of focus. US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently stressed the importance of “nutrition security” rather than focusing solely on food insecurity. Vilsack has repeatedly underscored the importance of improving the way Americans eat as well as making sure they have enough to eat in general.

Additional federal policy actions can be taken in 2021 to build a more comprehensive federal agenda and impact nutrition security and malnutrition risk for older adults. Those actions include the following measures.

  • Adding a malnutrition electronic clinical quality measure to hospital inpatient quality reporting programs. A Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) program tracks the quality of medical services provided to Medicare beneficiaries in different care settings, including hospitals. A new global malnutrition composite score measure would incentivize screening all older adults for malnutrition risk at hospital admission, assessing those found to be at risk, recording diagnosed malnutrition, and developing a nutrition care plan to follow patients as they transition to community or long-term care settings.
  • Providing increased and regular appropriations for older adult nutrition programs. Nutrition programs from the Older Americans Act and the USDA suffer from one major defect: They do not have enough funding or support to handle the exponential increases in caseloads and demand for services. This lack leaves many people without access to these critical programs, which can impact healthy aging.
  • Passing the Medical Nutrition Therapy Act. Currently, Medicare beneficiaries are covered for medical nutrition therapy from registered dietitian nutritionists only if they have diabetes, renal disease, or post-kidney transplant. Yet the majority of older adults have chronic conditions, and evidence shows nutrition is associated with health outcomes. The Medical Nutrition Therapy Act on the brink of being reintroduced in Congress, would add to this list other nutrition-related conditions and diseases, including malnutrition. Advocacy must begin as soon as the measure is introduced to get this important bill passed.
  • Encouraging and funding nutrition research in advance of the 2025–2030 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The next iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) will include an enhanced focus on older adult nutrition. However, a solid research base is necessary for the DGAs to reach evidence-based conclusions about older adults’ nutrition needs and dietary patterns. Immediate funding for research into older adult nutrition is needed so studies can be completed and published prior to the 2025 DGA evidence review.

Take action

Beyond advocating for these federal policy suggestions, you can take steps in your own community to help ensure older adults have nutrition security to support active aging. You can help eligible older adults apply for SNAP benefits. Use our interactive map to find your state agency or use the Eldercare Locator to find local counselors who can assist.

You can also point older adults to their local OAA nutrition programs using our map or the Meals on Wheels America program locator.

In short, there are many actions we all can take to increase nutrition security and decrease malnutrition risk in the older adult population, and these actions will also support active aging. It starts with advocating for a comprehensive federal plan and then encouraging leaders to pay attention. National Nutrition MonthR reminds us that now is a great time to advocate for this change!

Meredith Ponder Whitmire is policy director for Defeat Malnutrition Today and vice president at Matz, Blancato & Associates in Washington, DC.

Note: This information is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from research. The view expressed here are not necessarily those of the ICAA, we encourage you to make your own health and business decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified professional.

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