Why Malnourishment Plagues Seniors in America Today
Sandra Burton, a Registered Renal Dietitian with Bay Area Nutrition, discusses why her day-job provides not only insight into the elderly population’s nutrition, but also why she is extra passionate about spreading the word to American caregivers to cater nutritional needs for seniors’ specific health conditions and situations. After all, education is king when most of society is unaware of the breadth of the problem.
By guest blogger: Sandra Burton
First-Hand Insight Into Senior Malnourishment
Having first-hand exposure to an epidemic is different than learning about it in college. When I became a Registered Dietitian, my first job was at The Jewish Home in San Francisco. It is a home for the aged and it was the most rewarding and fulfilling job I ever had. I had the opportunity to work there for two years and it changed my way of thinking about how nutrition affects the elderly. For instance, even though Americans are living longer with the help of Western medicine, the senior population is at risk for becoming malnourished for a number of reasons, including: lack of appetite resulting from decreased taste buds or depression, specific health conditions, symptoms from medications, lack of energy to cook and financial concerns.
Factors That Contribute to Senior Malnutrition
Changing Taste Buds and Health Conditions
As the natural aging process happens, our taste buds dull and our ability to taste many foods—from hot, cold, sweet or sour—diminishes. Over time, hot and spicy foods can damage our tongue, throats and stomach. So as seniors get older they may need to eat foods that are hotter, saltier and sweeter; leaving them at risk for making poor food choices. In addition, seniors may also develop disease states, such as the following, that will affect what they can eat:
Medication Side-Effects and Dental Health
Many seniors will also have to start on medications which, unfortunately have side effects, such as appetite suppression, anorexia, weight loss, weight gain and taste changes. These changes alone can spiral a senior into poor health. And many seniors complain of the taste of metal in their mouth, which is also a side effect of many medications.
In addition to these already difficult obstacles to overcome, many seniors have missing teeth due to poor dental care or lack of money/insurance to go to the dentist. And when teeth are loose or missing, eating certain kinds of food may bring pain. Seniors who wear dentures may have ill-fitting dentures, so eating chewy foods may cause pain. The sensation of eating and enjoyment can be lost. Many suffer in silence as they don’t want to be a burden to their family; they don’t want to admit that they need help and struggle to hold on to their independence.
The Need for Public Awareness
Malnutrition goes undiagnosed in the senior population due to lack of awareness. By being aware of these potential problems, family members and care givers can help seniors plan grocery lists and menus that are rich in flavors and nutritious; they can cater specific diets to meet their loved ones’ individual needs. Families can go with them to the doctor to review any possible side effects they are having with their medications, and visit the dentist with them to see if they are having any problems with their teeth or dentures.
Bringing awareness to the many ways malnutrition can occur to our senior population can help inform families and caregivers about malnutrition risks and ways to prevent our seniors from falling into this very common—not to mention, undiagnosed problem—in the United States.
About the Author:
Sandy Burton is a Registered Dietitian who graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Nutrition and Food Science, with a concentration in Dietetics from San Jose State University. She joined Fresenius Medical Care in 2008, providing nutrition counseling for dialysis patients. Sandy also works for Bay Area Nutrition; providing individual counseling, specializing in Chronic Kidney Disease, hospice and nutrition for the aged.
In her free time Sandy enjoys traveling, hiking and going out with her husband, Dan. She also enjoys hanging out with her nieces, Lydia and Caitlin. Her passion is educating people on nutrition and helping them live a healthier life with food. She also volunteers at the American Heart Association.
Some advice from Sandy? “Enjoy food in moderation because it is one of our greatest pleasures in life!”