08 Nov 2023 Guest blog: Malnutrition – a Growing Concern for Older People
To mark Malnutrition Awareness Week 2023, in this guest blog we hear from Jen Grant, Dietician at Food Train’s Eat Well Age Well Project, about the growing concern of malnutrition in older adults and the importance of early detection and treatment.
Malnutrition (as undernutrition) is a serious health concern amongst older people across the UK that often goes undetected, untreated, and unrecorded.
Malnutrition occurs when someone does not consume enough nutrients to meet their nutritional needs. Older people in the UK are the most likely age group to be at risk of malnutrition and it is estimated that around 10% of older people are at risk of or are suffering from malnutrition. However, recent data collected by Eat Well Age Well suggests that in Scotland 16% of older people could be at risk of or suffering from malnutrition. Malnutrition severely impacts an older person’s quality of life and often leads to increased hospital admissions; increased lengths of hospital stays and an increased demands on health and social care services.
Older people tend to be at greater risk of becoming malnourished because they are more likely to experience issues that will impact their ability to eat and drink enough. Issues such as reduced appetite, taste changes, reduced ability to get to the shops and prepare and eat meals as well as increased loneliness and isolation are all linked to increased risk of becoming malnourished.
Many people believe that it is normal to lose weight or to eat less as we get older, but this is not the case, and this belief can lead to people not recognising the signs or symptoms of malnutrition until there is a significant reduction in a person’s quality of life or health. Keeping an eye out for signs such as unexpected weight loss, poor appetite, not finishing meals, struggling to prepare or eat meals or changes in their health and well-being such as feeling more tired, getting sick more often or becoming more lonely or isolated can be a good way of recognising when someone is at risk of malnutrition.
Older people who are malnourished have an increased rate of falls, increased risk of frailty and an increased risk of infection and illness. Early identification and treatment is key to prevent negative health outcomes and worsened quality of life. On many occasions malnutrition can be prevented by providing simple first line advice aimed at increasing the amount of nutrients in the food and drink older people are having in order to help them meet their nutritional requirements.
Those who work directly with older people in the community are very well placed to use simple tools such as the Patients Association Nutrition Checklist to identify those at risk of malnutrition and regular screening for malnutrition can help identify those at risk early on and allow the person at risk to receive advice and support before the problem becomes much worse. Unfortunately, in many areas malnutrition will go undetected, unrecorded, and untreated as regular screening is not a routine part of assessments and many staff receive little to no training on malnutrition.
Food Train’s Eat Well Age Well project works with organisations across Scotland to improve awareness of malnutrition risk amongst older people and provide training and support so that those who work directly with older people can identify those at risk of malnutrition early and provide advice and support as needed. Several organisations over the last few years have changed their way of working to include regular screening for malnutrition risk so that they are better able to identify those who need support around eating and drinking. Eat Well Age Well also works with the Scottish Government and Local Authorities to ensure that food access for older people and malnutrition prevention is included in key policy areas across Scotland. More information about the work that Eat Well Age Well is doing in Scotland can be found at www.eatwellagewell.org.uk or @EatWellScot on twitter. The Malnutrition Taskforce has more information about ongoing work in this area across the rest of the UK.
Jen Grant is a Dietitian with Food Train’s Eat Well Age Well project. Food Train is a Scottish charity working to provide vital services to older people who can no longer manage independently. The Eat Well Age Well project is funded by the Scottish Government and works to contribute to the prevention, detection, and treatment of malnutrition amongst over 65’s living at home in Scotland.