As an older adult, your nutrition is affected by many factors. Even though it becomes increasingly important to get more calcium, fiber, protein and other nutrients, it can be more difficult to do so. Nutrition in older adults is affected by a variety of medical, psychological, social and lifestyle factors.
The inability to afford food is a factor that makes it difficult to get adequate nutrition if you're an older adult. Money budgeted for groceries may take a back seat to the costs of utilities, housing, medication and health care. Assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and local resources, such as food pantries and soup kitchens, are possible sources of help.
A diminished appetite is a major cause of poor nutrition in older adults, and the reasons for it are still under investigation. Theories include a decreasing ability to regulate food intake, altered levels of hormones that influence appetite and changes in the central nervous system that decrease certain neurotransmitters affecting how much you eat. Appetite can also be affected by medications or other factors. Consult your doctor if you or an older adult you know has a poor appetite.
The health of your teeth is an important factor in your nutrition as an older adult. Dental problems, poorly fitting dentures or missing teeth make it difficult to chew. Close to half of low-income older adults in the United States have lost all of their teeth, according to the National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity & Aging. Problems chewing are associated with malnutrition, a decreased quality of life and poor health in general.
Ability to Swallow
Your ability to swallow normally is an important part of good nutrition. Difficulty swallowing can result from a stroke or other conditions and lead to malnourishment if tube feedings are not given.
Eating in isolation is a factor that can have a negative affect on your nutrition as an older adult. If you often eat alone, eat with others to improve your appetite and increase the amount of food you eat. Find a meal program for seniors by contacting your local senior center, attend an adult day-care center or invite friends, family and neighbors to share meals with you.
Mental and Psychological Health
Mental and psychological factors can affect your nutrition. Depression is a common cause of weight loss and malnutrition in older adults. Stress and anxiety can also cause you to eat less than you need. Dementia and confusion can impair an older adult's desire to eat and their ability to feed themselves by interfering with choosing which foods to eat, getting food into the mouth and chewing.
If you're an older adult who suffers from an acute or chronic disease, you could be at risk for poor nutrition. Malnutrition can result from many medical conditions including emphysema, arthritis, Parkinson's disease, stroke, cancer, an overactive thyroid and urinary or respiratory infections.
Ability to Shop and Cook
The ability to shop and cook are important factors in an older adult's nutrition. Homebound or disabled people unable to go out grocery shopping or prepare meals may qualify for Meals on Wheels, a service that delivers prepared meals to your home. The cost of Meals on Wheels varies, but is significantly reduced and usually affordable. Contact your local program office for information.
Medications can affect nutrition by causing side effects such as decreased appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, dry mouth, malabsorption of nutrients and alterations in taste and smell. Older adults have the highest incidence of polypharmacy -- the use of multiple medications -- which puts them at even higher risk of side effects.
Taste and Smell
The ability to taste and smell food are an important part of appetite and nutrition. Older adults can experience diminished ability to taste and smell because of certain medications and conditions. Reduced ability to taste may also result from a decreased number of taste buds or the malfunction of receptors involved in the sensation of taste. Making foods more flavorful can sometimes increase food intake in healthy older adults as well as those in hospitals and nursing homes, according to a study reported in the January 2006 issue of "Postgraduate Medical Journal."