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Addressing the Growing Issue of Malnutrition in Older Adults

By June 4, 2019December 31st, 2020Community Expert Advice Well-being
A senior woman receives a delivery of food from MANNA

Philadelphia-based MANNA delivers healthy meals and provides nutritional counseling to seriously ill people in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties.

Should you eat a different diet if you’re sick? Do you have the same nutritional needs when you’re 80 as you do when you’re 30?

I ask these questions because nutrition is such a hot topic in our culture. You can’t turn around without hearing about the newest fad diet or nutritional recommendation.

Now people are wondering about things like how much vitamin D they should be getting daily or whether they should be on a paleo or gluten-free diet. To complicate matters, the information that’s available is not only vast, but constantly changing. Just when you feel you have a handle on the “correct” way to eat, another study shows that something we previously thought would help may be cause for concern.

Proper nutrition is an especially important concern when it comes to the health of older adults.

Malnutrition in older adults

Believe it or not, malnutrition — which means getting too little or too much of certain nutrients — is more common in older adults than in younger adults. Aging, however, is not typically the cause. Malnutrition in older adults is most often a result of chronic disease, psychological conditions, or social issues. Some typical causes of malnutrition in older adults include chewing or swallowing disorders, heart failure, depression, social deprivation, and loneliness.

Malnutrition puts older adults at higher risk for a shortened lifespan, making nutrition an important part of keeping older adults healthy. If you’re someone (or you care for someone) who is managing a chronic illness, here are some of my recommendations on the topic of nutrition.

#1. Return to Common Sense

There are some nutrition tips that have stood the test of time:

  • Don’t skip meals
  • Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Avoid fast food
  • Make sure every meal has some protein and carbohydrate and a little fat
  • Make eating a social event

If you’re concerned about not being able to eat the right foods, talk to your doctor about starting a specific meal plan based on your chronic condition. Also ask about taking a multivitamin, supplements, and how much calcium and vitamin D you may need.

In addition to these common sense rules, keep an eye on whether you have lost weight in the last six months. While it may seem repetitive, it’s critical to get weighed at every doctor appointment. Unintentional weight loss can be a sign of a nutrition problem or other issues. For instance, is it difficult to move around your home and get into the kitchen? Are you having problems with your memory? Are you taking medications that alter your appetite?

#2. Think of Food as Medicine

Hippocrates is credited with saying, “Let food be thy medicine.” As he suggested, nutrition is an important aspect of both treating and preventing illness, considering a large portion of adults in the U.S. are managing preventable chronic diseases that are related to their dietary habits.

If you struggle with knowing what to eat, keep in mind that Medicare allows for medical nutrition therapy, usually at no cost to you. Medical nutritional therapy means seeing a dietitian for help with your diet when you have a chronic disease like diabetes or kidney disease.

In addition, Independence Blue Cross members can also count on our team of registered nurse Health Coaches, who are available 24/7 to help you manage chronic disease in a way that works with your doctor’s plan of care and your lifestyle. Don’t hesitate to call — members can reach a Health Coach by calling 1-800-ASK-BLUE (1-800-275-2583) (TTY/TDD: 711) and saying “Health Coach” when prompted for a call reason.

MANNA: Providing medically tailored meals and education

Independence Blue Cross recently entered into a wonderful relationship with MANNA, a Philadelphia-based company that uses nutrition to improve the health of those with serious illnesses. For the first time, we are offering assistance for certain members with meal delivery after they are discharged from the hospital.

Thanks to our partnership with MANNA, we can provide a lifeline to certain members who otherwise could not get the nutrients they need to get and stay well. MANNA empowers people to improve their health and quality of life through medically tailored meals and nutrition education.


Dr. Heidi J. Syropoulos

I joined Independence Blue Cross in 2015 after practicing Geriatrics for nearly 30 years. In my current role I function as the medical liaison to our Government Markets team, serving as a subject matter expert on clinical medicine and healthcare delivery. What I love about my position is the opportunity to help an entire population of people through the benefits of their health plan.