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Can Technology Help Eliminate Senior Malnutrition?

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonApril 4, 2017

Senior malnutrition is a frighteningly widespread health issue, but some scientists are harnessing the power of technology to help seniors get the nutrition they need. 

While obesity is indeed a worsening problem among older adults, senior malnutrition may not be getting the attention it deserves—even though 1-in-4 older Americans suffer from poor nutrition. In part this is because nutrition problems in seniors can be difficult to detect; sometimes such problems aren’t straightforward, such as hunger, but rather issues with vitamin or nutrient deficiencies, which may manifest in more subtle ways that just a tightening of the belt. That’s why researchers are harnessing the power of touchscreen technology to track older adults’ health and nutrition habits.

What Does Technology Have to Do with Senior Nutrition?

It isn’t always easy to accurately assess how many nutrients older adults are actually consuming. According to a recent study from the University of Sheffield in England, “Reports suggest that more than 50 per cent of hospital patients do not eat the full meal provided and up to 30 per cent of residents in nursing homes may not finish their lunch.” And it’s even more difficult to track what seniors are eating if they live independently or at home with their families.

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Enter the nutrition app, not to mention a range of other health technologies that are proliferating among computer and mobile device users—and despite the stereotypes, seniors are increasingly among the tech-savvy. Dr. David Lindeman, Director of the Center for Technology and Aging, noted in a presentation that 14% of apps released this past year were focused on nutrition. Tools like nutrition apps and calorie counters, which can help track what we eat down to the individual nutrient, promise to be a critical part of our arsenal in the fight against senior malnutrition.

Preventing Senior Malnutrition with the NANA System

One of the systems on the cutting edge of senior nutrition technology is NANA, or Novel Assessment of Nutrition and Ageing. Developed collaboratively among researchers at a number of UK universities, the NANA system is designed to look holistically at nutrition and health by taking measures of diet, mood, cognition and physical function. It does all this using technology most people already use every single day: touchscreens and webcams.

Because seniors are particularly at risk for malnutrition, the researchers designed NANA to be simple for older adults to use. An article in Gizmag describes how the system works: “Users select food items from a visual interface on the computer, recording everything they eat, including snacks. They then take before and after pictures of their meals using a webcam. The information is then sent off to a nutritionist who can ascertain a person’s dietary intake.”

According to the project lead, Dr. Arlene Astell, Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews, “Being able to eat and drink properly is vital for keeping well and living a good life. We have worked with older adults to make NANA something that people would want to have in their homes and use every day.” The researchers hope NANA will make it easier for caregivers to monitor seniors’ food intake, as well as drastically reducing the incidence of malnutrition.

If you’ve had trouble ensuring your senior loved ones are getting enough nutrients, do you think a system like NANA could help? Have you used any apps or software to help track senior nutrition? Let us know in the comments.

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Sarah Stevenson
Sarah Stevenson

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