Most doctors in America do not recognize malnutrition as an underlying factor in disease.
But last month, more than 90 specialists in health, aging and nutrition met in Washington to discuss nutrition-related problems among older Americans.
Earlier studies have shown that people who are somewhat malnourished get sick more often than those who are well-nourished. When hospitalized, they stay three to five days longer and are more likely to have complications. Consequently, their health care costs are much higher.
Conferees agreed malnutrition is a condition that can result from an excess or imbalance of nutrients, as well as from a deficit. That means folks who are obese or suffer from high blood cholesterol can be suffering from malnutrition.
In fact, 85 percent of older Americans have chronic diseases that could be helped by improving their nutrition, according to the Senate Committee on Education and Labor.
Marginal or poor nutritional status can be hard to detect initially, but it develops in a very predictable pattern over time, with increasingly more serious consequences.
Prevention is the best defense. Older people and their caregivers should be alert to these risk factors:
* Any disease that changes eating habits or makes it difficult to eat, cook or shop.
* Tooth loss or mouth pain.
* Poverty or economic hardship.
* Isolation or not having family and friends to share meals with.
* Multiple medications and drugs, including over-the-counter and prescription medications.
* Involuntary weight loss or gain.
* Need for help with self care, especially related to food.
* Age above 80.
If you or someone you know encounters several of these factors, ask your doctor to review the situation and take steps to assure good nutrition.
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.