As if being admitted to the hospital isn’t challenging enough, there’s often an additional underlying and undiagnosed condition occurring in one-third of seniors who go in: undernourishment.
Statistically, it’s estimated that one in three adult patients age 60 and older are malnourished.
Why is it then that in a study of 6 million adult hospitalizations, only 5 percent of the patients received a medical diagnosis of malnutrition?
Studies over the past three decades have shown that a patient’s nutritional status appears to be overlooked or not considered a medical priority.
In other words, the focus of the patient’s diagnosis and treatment is the condition that brought them to the hospital in the first place. While malnutrition may be observed, in only a very few cases is it noted as an actual diagnosis in the patient’s chart.
Malnutrition is defined as a lack of nutrient quantity or quality. A person who is underweight may be considered malnourished if they’re not getting enough food to provide them the proper nutrients. Or a person may be large, even obese, eating a sizeable amount of food, but the food they are eating does not provide the proper nutrition. They are also considered malnourished.
A physician may diagnose malnutrition by observing some of the following factors: unintentional weight loss, loss of muscle mass, decreased mobility and stamina, breathing difficulties, wounds taking longer to heal, slower immune response and difficulty staying warm. Blood tests can also highlight vitamin and nutrient deficiencies.
In addition to any of the aforementioned conditions, which may hinder recovery in the hospital, malnourished patients face three times the risk of surgical-site infections and longer stays in the hospital, and they are more likely to suffer falls or bedsores.
Other complications associated with malnutrition include skin breakdown, increased risk of sepsis and hospital-acquired infections such as chest and urinary tract infections.
If malnutrition is detected early, steps can be taken to prevent the condition from getting worse, and a treatment plan can be developed.
Malnutrition may also have its beginnings in the hospital because of pain, nausea, surgery, strokes, dementia, impaired swallowing and several other conditions. According to the National Council on Aging, of those adults who are nutritionally healthy upon admission, one-third are likely to see their nutrition decline during their stay.
We need vitamins and minerals in our diet. Without them, our bodies break down, and there is never a worse time for this to happen than when our body is trying to heal from an operation, illness or infection when we are in the hospital.
So, what can you do?
Ask your admitting physician about your body’s ability to recover from your illness. Be honest with your physician about your diet and ask if you are at risk because of your nutrition.
Follow the doctor’s orders with regard to nutrition and hydration during your hospital stay. If you’re having trouble eating or drinking while in the hospital, ask for help unwrapping packets, cutting food or placing items within reach. If the food that was chosen for you is not to your liking, ask if you might make a change.
If you need education about your diet, ask your physician to refer you to a registered dietician. They are on staff at the hospital and many also work in the community.
Many hospital settings encourage family and caregivers to come in at mealtimes to assist their relative with eating and drinking. This is a good practice, particularly for patients with dementia or learning disabilities as they may be more willing to accept help from a person they know.
And lastly, of course, bring your dentures—and your glasses to read the menu choices.
If you’re reading this article, help spread awareness about the issue: Proper nutrition is critical for optimal healthy aging.
I’d like to thank Lisa Weaver, M.S., R.D., director of Senior Concerns Nutrition Services, for bringing this research to my attention.
Gallagher, a certified senior advisor, is president of Senior Concerns, a nonprofit agency serving Ventura and western Los Angeles counties. For more information, visit seniorconcerns.org, and for comments or questions, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.