Good nutrition is vital for a healthy life. But as people age, they can undergo changes that prevent them from receiving the nutrition they need. As a consequence, malnutrition is common among older people.
Poor nutrition can have a multitude of negative effects on older people, including weakening their immune system, increasing the risk of infection, preventing wounds from healing, and making muscles weaker, and thereby increasing the risk of falls.
Factors causing older people to have lower nutritional intake
There are a number of reasons older people often have lower nutritional intake.
Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is common among older people and can make it difficult to eat or drink.
Older people are also more likely to have illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, or dementia, that can affect their energy levels, appetite, and weight. It follows that older adults are also more likely to be taking medications that could mean they are not able to extract all the nutrients from their food.
Dementia is also more common as people age, and can affect the way older people prepare, eat and appreciate food. They may get depression or become apathetic, which can lead to less interest in food.
Older people may lose their sense of smell or taste, which can reduce their appetite. They may undergo hormonal changes that affect how quickly they feel full.
Loss of mobility can also make it more difficult for older people to eat and drink.
Older people may develop dental health problems that can create problems chewing food or swallowing.
Older people may also experience financial difficulties, which can mean they are less likely to spend money buying nutritious food.
When we are aware of these issues and can focus on improving nutritional intake, older people can improve their quality of life, while also reducing the risk of falls, fractures, and pressure wounds.
Tips to ensure older people receive the nutrition they need
There are many ways to encourage older people to consume more healthy food and drink and improve their nutrition. Every time an older person eats and drinks should be seen as an opportunity to consume more nutrients.
Top tips for improving nutritional intake, include:
- Get active: The more active the person is, the greater their appetite will be, and the more they will be motivated to eat.
- Allow time for meals: Ensure the person has plenty of time to eat their meals and is not rushed. If they need help to eat, make sure help is available.
- Serve familiar foods: People are more comfortable eating when they presented with familiar foods.
- Making meal preparation enjoyable: Involve older people in the cooking process, or create situations where they can smell cooking aromas. This exposure can help the body prepare for eating, by prompting the body to produce more saliva for example.
- Support good dental health: Ensure the person sees a dentist regularly.
A focus on the kinds of foods eaten is also important to support health and healing. Guidelines recommend people:
- Aim for a balanced diet: Aim for five serves of fruit and vegetables every day.
- Ensure the person eats good quality carbohydrates with each meal, such as rice, bread, potatoes and pasta.
- Ensure the person eats a range of protein daily. Protein helps the body to create new calls and keeps muscles healthy.
- Eat dairy food each day. Dairy food keeps bones healthy and strong.
- Make sure older people eat plenty of fibre, such a wholemeal or wholegrain bread, breakfast cereals, brown rice, potatoes in their jackets, nuts, pulses, and fruit and vegetables. Fibre helps to keep bowel movements regular, avoiding constipation, and can lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers.
- Limit the amount of high-calorie foods and foods high in saturated fats, such as cakes and biscuits.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol provides no nutrients and is high in calories.
The role of supplements
Alongside a balanced diet, supplements can play an important role in helping older people meet their nutritional requirements.
For example, if an older person is at risk of malnutrition, it may be beneficial to introduce nutritional supplements to their dietary intake.
There are organisations, such as Nestlé Health Science, who have used scientific evidence to develop specially formulated nutritional supplements that have been designed to help older people meet their nutritional needs, including:
- Sustagen®, a nutritional top-up that contains high-quality protein and is a source of vitamins and minerals, including calcium and vitamin D.
- Resource® products, which are a range of oral nutrition supplements that have been developed for people with special nutritional requirements, including those with malnutrition, diabetes, pressure injuries and volume restrictions.
- Arginaid®, an arginine-based powder that has been designed to support the nutritional needs of people with chronic wounds such as pressure injuries. Arginine is an amino acid that is essential for wound healing. The ready-to-drink oral supplement also contains additional Vitamin C, E and Zinc designed to support the unique nutritional needs of people with chronic wounds.
Good nutrition is essential in ensuring older people’s quality of life. It is also the key to older people’s good health, both in terms of prevention and healing. When it isn’t possible for an older person to achieve the nutrition they need through eating and drinking regular food and drink, nutritional supplements are essential.