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Real food, supplements help the elderly stay healthy

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Malnutrition is common among the elderly, but dieticians now say that nutritional supplements could be the answer to improving weight, protein and energy intake in older Australians, helping to avoid illness and unnecessary hospital stays.

In research published in the latest edition of Australian Prescriber, accredited practising dietician Anne Schneyder examined ways of improving nourishment in older people at risk of malnutrition.

“Most elderly people eat far less than they did when they were younger, and their energy needs are lower, but the requirements for some nutrients, like protein, calcium and riboflavin are higher,” she says.

“This means that their food has to be more nutritious to meet their needs.”

Studies have shown that malnutrition in the elderly can result in significant illness, hospitalisation, the development of pressure ulcers, infection, an increase in falls and fractures, and even death. Unintentional weight loss can also result in a reduction in the ability to care for oneself, loss of mobility and independence, and a poorer quality of life.

The rates of malnutrition in older people living at home are estimated to be as high as 30 per cent, and in aged-care facilities can be as high as 70 per cent.

Ms Schneyder said that for people at risk of malnutrition, using real foods was the first step to improving nutrition.

“Eating small frequent meals and snacks between meals, increasing the nutrient density of meals by adding milk powder, grated cheese, margarine and cream, and having nourishing fluids like milk drinks, smoothies and juice are the main ways to boost protein, energy and nutrients,” she said.

But Ms Schneyder says studies have shown that sensible use of nutritional supplements can also help improve weight, protein and energy intake, and quality of life overall.

“There are a number of supplements to choose from, and the most commonly and readily available are milk based,” she said.

“Specialised supplements are also available for particular medical conditions such as kidney disease.”

Ms Schneyder said that using nutritional supplements could be a valuable addition to the diet for an older person who was malnourished or at risk, but warned supplements should not be used on their own without a comprehensive assessment from a dietician.

“Overall, a good strategy for improving malnourishment in the elderly is about increasing protein and energy intake from food, preserving the enjoyment of food, and importantly, maintaining quality of life.”

Debra Vermeer