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What We’re Learning About the Dietary Needs of Older Adults

Malnutrition among older Americans has been declared to be a national crisis. In fact, according to the National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity & Aging, hundreds of thousands of seniors in the U.S. are malnourished. There's no better time to shine the light on this oft-overlooked topic than during March's Senior Nutrition Month.

Seniors in low-income neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable to the “food desert” phenomenon.

Let's take a closer look at this critical issue, along with examining the findings of a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Food and Nutrition Board workshop focused on meeting the dietary needs of older adults.

Malnutrition in Older Adults

Malnutrition is a major health concern which impacts millions of seniors, and can lead to medical complications, including everything from a weak immune system to poor wound healing and muscle weakness.

RELATED: ARE DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS A HAZZARD TO YOUR HEALTH?

Unfortunately, malnutrition is all too common among seniors: Up to 65 percent of hospitalized seniors are malnourished upon admittance. Malnourished seniors are also readmitted more often and have longer hospital stays. Furthermore, approximately one million homebound individuals are malnourished, and as many as 50 percent of older Americans in senior living communities may be malnourished.

Addressing the Issue

Members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Food and Nutrition Board met in Washington, DC last fall for a workshop aimed at identifying “factors in the physical, social, and cultural environment that affect the ability of older adults to meet their daily dietary needs.”

The workshop covered six main areas: a look at the rising numbers of older adults around the world; emerging insights into physiological changes which occur during aging; ecological insights into senior food sources and nutrition; a review of national programs currently designated to address senior nutrition; a review of the role community, retail and nonprofit organizations play in offering nutritional programming for older adults; and identifying research priorities moving forward.

Key Findings: Dietary Needs of Older Adults

The Institute of Medicine's “Meeting the Dietary Needs of Older Adults — Workshop in Brief,” which sums up key findings from the workshop, reveals one overarching theme: A call for new ways to comprehensively address the nutrition and dietary needs of older adults in the face of rapid growth within the senior population.

The workshop also tackled the evolution of the concept of “successful aging”.  Researchers proposed that the definition is transitioning from one focused on eradicating disease and disability to one reframed from the perspective of the older adults themselves with qualities like well-being and social connectedness taking on equal weight with factors like freedom from disability and disease. The takeaway? Involving older adults in determining what truly constitutes “successful aging” holds untapped value.

The challenges of determining nutrient requirements for older adults was also an important part of the workshop conversation, with nutrient-dense diets agreed upon as a best practice. Vitamins D and B were highlighted for their critical role, with experts pointing out that most older adults are unable to fulfill the Recommended Dietary Allowance on diet alone.

Another session of the workshop put the focus on ecological — as opposed to physiological — impacts on senior nutrition, highlighting the “three pillars of food security:” food availability, food access and food use, and how all three must work together to ensure senior health and wellbeing, and so must be factored into the process of designing food assistance programs for older adults.

The workshop also reinforced the vital role communities will play in senior health and wellness as the population of older adults continues to skyrocket, and how new product ideas and technologies will be an integral part of meeting rising needs.

Social eating promotes enhanced nutrition among older adults.

What does all of this mean for the current state of nutrition among older adults? While outcomes from the workshop offer hope toward improving the situation, they also make clear that there's much to be done — not just to improve our understanding of what nutrition means for older adults, but to to do so within the context of a particularly relevant imperative for senior caregiving: understanding why so many nutritional needs of older adults go unmet.

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