New research led by Torrens University Australia researcher Dr Elsa Dent has been recently published in the prestigious research journal, the Lancet to raise awareness of this critical issue with the aim of lessening the impact on the health system and improving the quality of people’s lives.
“Too often, malnutrition in older people is unrecognised. We think we can see it, but we cannot - especially as some people may have been overweight when they were younger or middle-aged, and then they lose a lot of weight. Sometimes it is seen as a ‘natural’ part of the ageing process, but it’s not good,” said Dr Dent.
“When people lose weight when they are older, they often lose muscle mass and that decreases their ability to walk properly, to lift heavy things, and their ability to maintain independence.”
A wholistic approach is needed in health settings
Dr Dent’s research indicated that more understanding of malnutrition in older adults, particularly in hospitals and in care settings, is needed - which starts with education. Currently, only half of medical schools in European countries incorporate the topic of malnutrition in older adults into their curriculum.
“This research is shining a spotlight on how we need to improve our health and aged care systems so that older people have access to better screening and early intervention options that will help improve their quality of life,” Dr Dent explained.
“We also need to raise awareness of the environmental and psychological factors affecting the nutritional status in older adults. Often, these factors are forgotten in assessment and treatment, but they are essential for improving clinical practice.”
“One of the other major hurdles is that identification of malnutrition and nutritional needs of older adults take a backseat when they present with other care needs are present.”
Technology can help older adults stay on top of their nutritional needs
Dr Dent said that electronic medical health alerts can be used to expand the rates of malnutrition screening in older adults in the community.
“We can also use mobile technologies to prompt older adults to increase their dietary intake and use tele-health services to help people who are isolated in rural and remote communities or house-bound,” said Dr Dent.
Professor Kerry London, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research said the impact of research like this can save lives.
“The Lancet has a reputation for only accepting research that improves lives and addresses power imbalances in global health. We are all very proud of Elsa and her work and has received such prestigious international recognition from her peers in such a critical research area.
“Dr Dent’s research illustrates that Torrens University Australia is designing and conducting research that influences decision makers in the health systems and is bridging the healthcare gap between primary and secondary care for older adults,” said Professor London.
The malnutrition research is calling for some key changes including:
- Establishing an international standard for diagnosing malnutrition
- Strengthening the quality of evidence that informs nutritional interventions
- Ensuring all older adults receive cost-effective, appropriate nutritional care
- A raised profile of malnutrition in older populations among public health policy makers
- Public health messages about malnutrition in older adults