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What Are The Signs Of Malnutrition?

Malnutrition is more prevalent than you might think—half of older adults are at risk. Don’t miss the signs and symptoms of malnutrition in older adults.

Signs of malnutrition in adults
Jan 28 2016

When people hear the word “malnutrition” they tend to think of starving children in developing nations. However, malnutrition, or undernutrition, exists in every part of the world and can affect people of all ages. In fact up to 50 percent of patients in hospitals worldwide are malnourished or at risk for malnutrition. And malnutrition is not always physically obvious.

So, what is malnutrition? Malnutrition is simply a lack of proper nutrition (i.e. poor nutrition), a condition in which the body doesn’t receive the right nutrients in the right amounts.

“Malnutrition happens when a person doesn’t get the right nutrients to live a healthful life; whether that be from not eating enough or eating too much,” says Abby Sauer, MPH, RD, a research scientist with Abbott. “Being malnourished causes an imbalance in our bodies and if it lasts long, it can have a significant impact on our health.”

Who Is at Risk?

While anyone can be malnourished, certain groups of people are at higher risk. Older adults, children and those who are ill are more likely to be malnourished because of loss of appetite and picky eating. Up to one in two older adults are at risk of malnutrition. And malnutrition in hospitals is very common as patients battle illness, surgery and longer recoveries that impact nutritional health. 

“Malnutrition in older adults is a critical concern. The risk of falls, infections, and other health complications increases with malnutrition. Identifying malnutrition and intervening early is key to keeping loved ones as strong as possible and reducing complications,” Sauer says.

Infographic: Know the Risks of Malnutrition

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Some of the signs of malnutrition include unintentional weight loss, lack of appetite, being sick, injured or having an underlying health issue.

Symptoms can include tiredness, lack of energy or strength and more. For loved ones, look out for looser clothes or rings—sometimes those are small signs that someone is losing weight because of malnourishment or at risk of malnutrition.

What Are the Complications of Malnutrition?

If left untreated, malnutrition can have serious complications. In the hospital, malnourished patients face increased complications, such as infections, slower recovery, a higher risk of infections at surgical sites and an overall higher risk of death. And, alarmingly, half of patients who fall in the hospital are malnourished.

How Can You Prevent Malnutrition?

  1. Take a look at your plate
    Make sure you are trying to eat balanced meals that include the right mix of protein, fat and carbohydrates. Older adults often need more protein to combat the natural progression of muscle loss due to aging. Talk to your doctor, nurse or registered dietitian about your diet and ensure you are getting the right nutrition.

  2. Watch out for your loved ones
    Take note if anyone has lost weight unintentionally or is lacking energy.

  3. Prioritize hospital nutrition
    If you become hospitalized, keep nutrition top of mind and talk with hospital professionals to ensure you are well nourished during your stay and after.

With the right attention to nutrition you can maintain your health and lower you or your loved one's risk of malnutrition. Visit for more information. 


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