Malnutrition in Seniors: How to Spot it and What to Do

Posted by David Morris, M.D. on Mar 16, 2016 7:30:00 AM

The benefits of eating nutritious food are well-documented, but when other medical complications rise up around you or your older loved ones, it can be easy to forget that wholesome eating means better health. A poor diet in older adults can mean a weaker immune system, muscle weakness that can lead to falls and fractures, and a host of other problems. Comparatively, good nutrition in older adults can help wounds heal faster and helps improve brain function. 

What Can Cause Malnutrition in Seniors


While it might be tempting to blame malnutrition in your loved one on simply not getting enough nutrition, the truth is that there’s a lot of complexity in that statement. While the cause of malnutrition may indeed be that they’re just not eating enough of the right food, the root of that problem is often a much deeper issue. If someone you love isn’t eating properly, try to find out why – and be on the lookout for these possibilities: 

  •  Income constraints: Groceries can be expensive. Add to that the cost of medication and living all based on an income that is limited, low, or all together nonexistent, and groceries are the category many older adults cut from first.
  • Health trouble: As we get older, problems with our health can interfere with proper eating. Disorders such as dementia, dental problems or a reduced sense of taste and smell often contribute to a diminished appetite. Sometimes, older people have trouble swallowing, which also results in malnourishment.
  • Depression and reduced companionship: Less time spent with loved ones, health concerns, grief and loneliness can all contribute to a lack of appetite. If meal times were formerly spent with loved ones who have either passed or moved away, older adults might subconsciously skip meals to avoid feeling lonely.
  • Dietary restrictions: Reducing salt, cholesterol, fat, sugar and some proteins may be helping your older loved one manage a medical condition, but those reductions can also make meals boring if they’re not being carefully and thoughtfully prepared. Many older adults choose not eating over eating food that doesn’t taste good. 

How to Spot Malnutrition

Obviously, the first step in fighting malnutrition in your loved one involves spending time with them. This can actually increase their appetite anyway, so the return is twofold. Watch their eating habits. Know who buys their food and what they’re purchasing. Know who is preparing their meals. Visit them at meal times to make sure they’re eating. Look for weight loss, poor wound healing, dental troubles and easy bruising as these are all signs of poor nutrition. Also, familiarize yourself with is the medication they’re taking, as some affect appetite and nutrient absorption. 

What to Do About It

seniors_malnutrition_milk-146801510_1.jpgThe best thing you can do to guard against malnutrition in your loved one is to be a part of their life and part of their eating habits. Visiting them at mealtimes not only assures that you’ll know what they’re eating, but it can also help them from feeling lonely, which will increase their appetite. Cook for them. Instead of bland, dietary restricted foods, think of ways to incorporate flavor into the things they need to eat to stay healthy. Encourage them to eat food with nutrients. Adding nut butters to fruit, toast or crackers is often a good way to sneak in some good proteins and calories. 

Talk to their doctor about malnutrition. Their physician might change medications if what they’re taking decreases appetite and their dentist may be on the alert for dental problems that are preventing them from eating. 

If the reason they’re not eating properly is financial, look into assistant programs, or help them find coupons for the items they regularly buy. 

Regardless of what the root of your loved one’s malnutrition is, staying involved in their lives is going to be the best thing you can do to make sure they’re eating properly and staying healthy.


Morris_David.pngDr. David Morris is board-certified in Family Medicine and in Geriatrics. His clinical expertise includes extensive work in adult medicine and geriatrics. He’s a member of the American Geriatric Society of Family Physicians, among other professional organizations. Dr. Morris cares for his Kelsey-Seybold patients at Cinco Ranch Clinicin Katy and will be moving to the new Katy Clinicopening March 21.


Topics: malnutrition, seniors with eating problems, geriatric

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