Malnutrition is a hidden epidemic in the United States and is undertreated and underrecognized. Malnutrition occurs when the body doesn’t get the right balance of nutrients and calories that it needs to stay healthy. This doesn’t just happen to people who suffer from hunger or who don’t have access to healthy food.
Older adults are at an increased risk because our dietary needs change, our sense of taste and smell may weaken, digestive systems may slow, chewing and swallowing problems may develop, and the ability of our bodies to absorb nutrients can decline. Chronic conditions can also reduce appetite, make it physically difficult to shop and cook, make it harder to remember to eat, change metabolism and digestion, and require dietary restrictions and medications that have appetite-reducing side effects. Also, people of any body type can become malnourished—even overweight and obese individuals.
Malnutrition can lead to hospitalization, and hospitalization itself puts people at risk. Living in a long-term care facility also raises risk due to the frequent presence of chronic conditions, dependence on others for eating, and more.
Without proper nutrition, our bodies can’t stay healthy, fight off disease, or deal with illnesses that we already have. It weakens our immune systems and leaves us vulnerable to infections, slower recovery, and wound healing. It also causes weight loss and muscle loss that can lead to frailty, falls and broken bones, sarcopenia, loss of independence, and complication of other diseases. Malnutrition while hospitalized leads to more re-admissions, infections, worse outcomes, and even death.
Symptoms can include sudden unintended weight loss and/or loss of appetite and decreased food intake. Other symptoms can develop as it progresses. Treatment may involve treating the underlying cause if possible, providing more nutritious foods, offering social services that improve access to food, and even nutritional supplements.