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Malnutrition and Older Americans

"Malnutrition in the most vulnerable population groups - the young and the old - is a problem of increasing national concern. Recent studies have shown that one out of four older Americans suffer from poor nutrition. National nutrition programs, such as the Elderly Nutrition Program funded by the Administration on Aging, have a significant role to play in addressing this concern," stated Fernando M. Torres-Gil, Assistant Secretary for Aging, Department of Health and Human Services.

Good nutrition plays a crucial role in keeping older people healthy and functioning. Many older Americans, however, aren't eating well. Those who may have lost their teeth find it difficult to chew. Others may have a hard time getting to the grocery store, especially if they no longer drive. Still others simply cannot afford to buy the kind of food that could help keep them healthy. In fact, for many older people it's not a question of eating well but of eating at all. Even today, millions of older Americans are hungry or worried about where their next meal is coming from.

To better understand these concerns, Assistant Secretary for Aging, Fernando M. Torres-Gil has commissioned an issue paper dealing with the serious problem of malnutrition and older Americans.

Magnitude

Older Americans with varying degrees of malnutrition are found throughout the community - in their own homes, in long-term care facilities, and in hospitals.

  • The number of older adults living in their own communities who are malnourished is in the hundreds of thousands, with one expert estimating over one million homebound elders may be malnourished.
  • Between 35 and 50 percent of the older residents of long-term care facilities are malnourished.
  • As many as 65 percent of the elders in hospitals may be malnourished.

Impact on Society

For older Americans, malnutrition can lead to lost weight and strength, lessened immunity to disease, confusion and disorientation. Malnutrition exacerbates frailty and debilitation, causing families and loved ones greater worry and concern, as well as more time and energy spent in caregiving.

Studies have shown that older adults at nutritional risk tend to make more visits to physicians, hospitals and emergency rooms. Malnourished patients have hospital stays nearly twice as long as those of well-nourished patients, and costs of their stays are $2,000 to $10,000 higher. Malnourished older patients are readmitted to hospitals more frequently than those who are well-nourished.

Causes

The reasons older people may eat too little food can be as simple as too little money or as complex as disease, too many medications and too dependent on others. Several important factors contributing to inadequate nutritional intake among older people can be cited.

  • Poverty contributes significantly to malnutrition among older people. As health care, medication and utility costs increase, many older Americans cut back on their food budget.
  • Many older people, especially the oldest and the poorest, have disabilities or functional impairments and are unable to shop for groceries or cook for themselves.
  • Over 80 percent of those 65 and older suffer from chronic diseases and conditions, many of which are associated with malnutrition.
  • Older adults take more medications than any other age group. Medications can cause loss of appetite, reduced taste and smell, painful swallowing, nausea and vomiting, and can affect the absorption and use of nutrients.
  • Nearly half of the nation's low-income elders have lost all of their natural teeth. Problems with chewing and swallowing have definitely been linked to malnutrition.

Programs

The Administration on Aging through Titles III and VI of the Older Americans Act funds and administers the largest community nutrition services program for older Americans, the Elderly Nutrition Program. This program provides nutrition services including meals, nutrition education, and other services to mobile and homebound elders 60 years of age and older with a preference to those in greatest economic and social need.

The United States Department of Agriculture funds several different food assistance programs for the elderly, including the Food Stamp Program, the Nutrition Program for the Elderly, Commodity Supplemental Food Program-Elderly, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Food Distribution on Indian Reservations.

Despite federally funded programs, experts estimate large numbers of older men and women are suffering from malnutrition. The issue paper,Food and Nutrition For Life: Malnutrition and Older Americans, seeks to enhance public understanding about the magnitude of the elderly malnutrition problem, its causes, its impact on society, the programs that exist to address it, and the need for more research and information. For a copy of the issue paper or a summary, write to:

National Aging Information Center
500 E Street, S.W. Suite 910
Washington, D.C. 20024-2710
Telephone: (202) 554-9800
Fax: (202) 554-0695
Internet: www.aoa.gov/naic/about.html


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National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity & Aging
| Florida International University, OE 200, Miami, FL 33199
Phone: 305-348-1517 | Fax: 305-348-1518 | E-mail:
nutritionandaging@fiu.edu

This website is supported, in part, by a grant from the Administration on Aging, Department of Health and Human
Services (DHHS). Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their
findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, reflect official DHHS policy.