Nutritional problems in the elderly can cause a number of complications, including weakened immune systems, lowered energy levels and chronic health problems such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and osteoporosis. Making changes in their diet to match the changes in elders’ changing caloric, energy, taste and access needs helps prevent malnutrition, which often goes undiagnosed.
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Both weight loss and weight gain are problems in the elderly related to nutrition. The elderly have reduced metabolisms, meaning they burn fewer calories than they did before age 40. Additionally, the elderly often have less energy, especially if they suffer from chronic medical conditions. A slowed metabolism coupled with reduced activity can lead to obesity, which is on the rise in the elderly, according to a March 2004 article in “Current Opinion in Gastroenterology.” On the other side, limited access to food, decreased appetites, medication side effects and medical problems can cause weight loss. Poverty and fixed incomes keep some elderly people from purchasing foods rich in vitamins and minerals. An elderly person with weight loss of at least 5 percent should see a doctor. Even a weight loss of 5 percent over three years can signal a health problem.
When an elder oversalts his food, the problem more likely arises from a decreased sensitivity to salt than dissatisfaction with the cooking. The elderly often have trouble recognizing salty and bitter tastes, resulting in increased salt intake, which can lead to high blood pressure. Because the elderly usually retain their ability to appreciate sweet tastes the longest, they may go overboard on the sugary snacks, desserts and beverages. Sugary foods can cause weight gain in anyone, but because of their slowed metabolisms, the elderly are more susceptible to it.
Dehydration is common in the elderly for a number of reasons. The elderly have a reduced ability to conserve water, are less attuned to their thirst, and may avoid drinking fluids because of overactive bladder problems. Additionally, the elderly are more likely to lack proper hydration in warm-weather months and during illness. Medications and chronic medical conditions often increase the risk of dehydration. Mild to moderate complications from dehydration include constipation, headache, dizziness, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat and los of consciousness. Severe complications include seizures, kidney failure, swelling of the brain, heat injury and death.
The elderly should eat foods rich in B12, magnesium and vitamins A, C and D. They should focus on high-fiber foods, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or nonfat milk and milk products. Rather than adding salt, the elderly should eat foods seasoned with herbs and olive oil. To satisfy sweet cravings, they should munch on foods that are naturally sweet, such as fruits, and cook with sweet peppers. To prevent dehydration, the elderly should drink small amounts of fluids throughout the day, consuming at least 1.7 liters of fluid every 24 hours