Malnutrition in older people

Malnutrition in people aged 65 and over in the UK is not a widely talked about subject. But when estimated figures suggest that one in ten older people (that’s about 1.3 million people) are either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition, it’s a subject that perhaps should be brought up more.

When we are well nourished we are more mentally alert and physically fit, but when we are malnourished through not eating enough or not eating the right things, our bodies have little energy to function properly and it can weaken the immune system, leading to an increased susceptibility to infection.

Why are so many older people at risk of malnutrition?

  • 11 of those aged 65 and over find it difficult to get to a local shop
  • 12% of those aged 65 and over find it difficult to get to a supermarket
  • Around one in five people in their late 80s have difficulty undertaking five or more activities of daily living, including shopping and cooking
  • In 2017 it was estimated that just under half of local authorities provided meals on wheels to vulnerable older people, compared to 66% two years ago.

What does malnutrition look like?

The main sign of malnutrition is a low body weight or an unintentional and severe weight loss over a 3-6 month period. However, when weight loss can also be attributed to other illnesses too, this may not always be an indicator. Weight loss in older people is not an inevitable result of old age. Other symptoms can include a lack of interest in eating and drinking, over tiredness, muscle weakness and frequent infections.

What can you do to help those around you?

  • Look out for your elderly relatives, friends and neighbours, ask if they need help with shopping, meal prepping or cooking.
  • If you’re worried about someone in your care such as an elderly relative, speak to your GP.
  • If you’re concerned about a friend, other family member or neighbour, encourage them to speak to their GP.

How can you maintain a healthy body weight in old age?

Maintaining a healthy body weight in old age is important. Being underweight as an older person increases the risk of health problems including bone fractures after a fall, a weakening of the immune system and becoming more prone to infections, and it can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

It is not uncommon for older people to lose their appetite even if there is nothing wrong. The weight loss is caused simply because the food they are eating does not give them sufficient energy or calories.

If you do have a smaller appetite and are finding eating three large meals a day difficult, try these tips for higher calorie intake:

  • Switch to smaller meals and snack more
  • Eat higher calorie foods such as milky puddings, cheesy main courses, porridge with whole milk and dried fruit, vegetable filled soups, sardines, avocado or peanut butter on toast, shepherd’s or cottage pies
  • Supplement or replace meals with high-calorie drinks (can be found at supermarkets or ask your local pharmacist)
  • Ask your local council about whether they offer a meals on wheels service or can recommend a service for you to order meal deliveries through.