When you think of malnutrition, what image comes to mind?

Perhaps you recall heart-wrenching commercials and documentaries exposing the faces of famine in third-world countries—people with gaunt bodies, bones projecting out, and stomachs distended?

I can bet, though, not many of you conjure an image of an overweight person. But the truth is, in the U.S., the face of malnutrition looks very different from common belief. It’s often far more familiar than you think.

How malnutrition is defined

In basic terms, malnutrition can be characterized as either a lack of nutrient quantity or a lack of nutrient quality. Lack of nutrient quantity is simply not eating enough food to keep you healthy.

Lack of nutrient quality, however, is more complicated and harder to identify because the person may not physically appear to be underweight. He or she may be eating a sizable amount daily, but the food is void of the nutrients necessary to keep them healthy.

These cases often go undiagnosed, leading to serious adverse events, such as pressure ulcers, impaired wound healing, a suppressed immune system, and an increased rate of infection. Often, malnutrition is not discovered until the person is hospitalized with one or more of these secondary conditions.

Older adults account for the majority of malnutrition cases

The causes of malnutrition in older adults are not simple, but rather a complex blend of physical, social, and psychological issues.

For example, an elderly man may become malnourished because the medicines he takes for his chronic conditions prevent his body from properly absorbing key minerals and vitamins from the food he eats. Or an elderly woman who has lost her driver’s license may be unable to get to the store to buy fresh groceries.

Mental health and hospitalizations also play large roles in malnourished older populations. Depression, which is common in the aging community, often leads to a loss of appetite. Additionally, it’s estimated that one in three seniors enters the hospital already malnourished and, of those who are healthy upon admission, 33% are likely to see their nutrition decline during their stay.

It is imperative to monitor older adults closely for signs of malnutrition. However, the most common symptoms of malnutrition are often mistaken as the “normal” signs of aging:

  • Unplanned weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inability to eat or only able to eat small amounts
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Swelling or fluid accumulation

Because the signs of malnutrition are too often overlooked, the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN) created Malnutrition Awareness Week™ to help spread awareness and provide greater education on this issue, which is critical for optimal healthy aging.

In honor of Malnutrition Awareness Week™, please join us in increasing awareness and knowledge about this under-rated health dilemma. Take a few minutes to consider if someone you know might be malnourished and encourage them to talk to their health provider immediately about their eating habits, diet, and overall wellness.

To learn more about Malnutrition Awareness Week™, visit NutritionCare.org/MAW.