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Why Malnourishment Plagues Seniors in America Today

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenMarch 18, 2016
Why Malnourishment Plagues Seniors in America Today

Sandra Burton, a Registered Renal Dietitian (RPG) with Bay Area Nutrition, discusses why her day-job provides not only insight into the senior population’s nutrition, but also why she is passionate about spreading the word to American caregivers to cater nutritional needs for seniors’ specific health conditions and situations.

After all, education is necessary when most of society is unaware how malnourishment plagues seniors in the U.S. today.

Professional Insight into How Malnourishment Plagues Seniors

Having first-hand exposure to an epidemic is different than learning about it in college. When I became an RPG, my first job was at The Jewish Home in San Francisco. It is a home for the aged and it was the most 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.

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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
  • Financial concerns

Factors That Contribute to Senior Malnutrition in America Today

According to Sandra Burton, RPG, these factors commonly 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 cold to hot, 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
  • Taste changes

These changes alone can spiral a senior into poor health, but in addition to these obstacles, many seniors have missing teeth due to poor dental care or lack of money/insurance to go to the dentist.

When teeth are loose or missing, eating certain kinds of food may bring pain. Even seniors who wear dentures could have ill-fitting dentures, so eating chewy foods may cause pain there as well.

Unfortunately, many seniors suffer in silence as they don’t want to be a burden to their family; or have to admit that they need help while still struggling to hold onto 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, caregivers and family members 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 their parents and senior loved ones to the doctor, to review any possible side effects they are having with their medications, or visit the dentist with them to see if they are having any problems with their dentures or teeth.

Bringing awareness to the many ways that malnutrition can occur in our seniors can help inform the population about malnutrition risks and ways to prevent our seniors from falling into this very common — not to mention, undiagnosed problem — in America.

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 going out with her husband, Dan, hiking and traveling. 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.

How have you brought awareness to malnutrition in seniors? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

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Dana Larsen
Dana Larsen

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