In a nation where we are constantly reminded of how the average adult eats far too much, it’s hard to imagine that a fastest growing portion of our population regularly eats too little. Seniors' battle with nutrition is one often fought in silence, with most never recognizing or addressing the issue. A recent study showed just how serious the issue of elderly malnutrition really is, but what’s causing it is far less clear.

In their study, researchers from the American College of Emergency Physicians questioned patients aged 65 and over who were waiting to be seen at a hospital’s emergency room. The emergency room was believed to be an excellent resource for this study, seeing as many who arrive for treatment may have limited resources or no access to primary care.

It was found that a shocking 60 percent of those approached were either malnourished or at risk for malnutrition. Of these, a further 77 percent had never been diagnosed with malnutrition by a physician, despite the obvious signs. "We were surprised by the levels of malnutrition or risk of it among cognitively intact seniors visiting the ER, and even more surprised that most malnourished patients had never been told they were malnourished," lead author Timothy Platts-Mills explained in a recent press release.

Malnutrition is a broad term encompassing both those who suffer from under-nutrition and over-nutrition. In the study, the issue of under-nutrition was found to affect an alarmingly high amount of individuals over the age of 65. Under-nutrition, or subnutrition, occurs when an individual does not eat enough or eats an unbalanced diet lacking one or more of the basic food groups.

The majority of these individuals have access to health care, are not critically ill, and do not have dementia, which left researchers puzzled as to why they simply aren’t eating enough. “Some of these patients aren’t eating enough because they are isolated. Some have access to food but are less inclined to eat because they have dental problems or depression,” Platts-Mills told Medical Daily.

Results showed that malnutrition was highest among those with symptoms of depression, a correlation that is not completely understood. “Our data is cross-sectional. We know there is an association, but we don’t know the directions. It’s possible that both directions exist,” Platts-Mills added. It was also noted that malnutrition rates were higher in seniors housed in assisted living facilities. This may be due to a combination of loneliness and underlying health problems, such as cancer.

Adding social work resources to conduct additional screens for older adults would be a quick and cost-efficient solution. The screenings would take between three and five minutes, and once the problem is diagnosed the social workers can collaborate with senior citizens to come up with a feasible solution. This fix is not currently supported by data, but it is hoped that soon more will be done to demonstrate the long-term success of these terms.

For the time being, you can help any malnourished older person by noticing if they have disinterest in food, decreases in functional activity or functional capacity, such as not being able to walk upstairs, or just an overall decrease in movement. “For family members, the most specific sign may be that the senior citizen is just not eating enough,” Platts-Mills informed Medical Daily.

Source: Platts-Mills TF, Pereira GF, Bulik CM, Weaver MA, Holland WC. Malnutrition Among Cognitively Intact, Noncritically Ill Older Adults in the Emergency Department. Annals of Emergency Medicine. 2014.