CHAPEL HILL, N.C., USA: Malnutrition is common among older adults. Although it has tremendous effects on the overall health and quality of life of patients, it is often missed by health care providers. A new study led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has shown that poor oral health is a major risk factor for malnutrition. The results highlight that dental care and food assistance programs for the elderly are needed.
The study included 252 adults aged 65 and over who received care in three emergency departments in North Carolina, Michigan and New Jersey, at which they were screened for malnutrition and then interviewed about the presence of risk factors.
The overall prevalence of malnutrition in the study population was 12 percent. Of the risk factors studied, poor oral health was found to have the largest impact on malnutrition. Over 50 percent of the patients in the study had some dental problems, and such patients were three times as likely to suffer from malnutrition. Ten percent of patients experienced food insecurity—defined based on responses to questions regarding not having enough food, eating fewer meals and going to bed hungry. Food insecurity too was strongly associated with malnutrition. Other factors associated with malnutrition that may contribute to the problem include social isolation, depression, medication side effects and limited mobility.
Of the three sites, patients receiving care in the North Carolina emergency department had the highest rate of malnutrition (15 percent). The researchers noted that North Carolina also has one of the highest rates of older adults living below the poverty line (ranked third out of 50 states).
Collin Burks, a medical student at the university and the study’s lead author, said: “Improving oral health in older adults will be more challenging but also important. Medicare does not cover dental care. Fixing dental problems not only makes it easier for these individuals to eat but also can improve their self-esteem, quality of life, and overall health. We need affordable methods of providing dental care for older adults.”
The study, titled “Risk factors for malnutrition among older adults in the emergency department: A multicenter study,” was published online on March 21 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society ahead of print.