Nutritional needs for the elderly

Written by Joe Newman01/02/23

Maintaining a healthy weight and ensuring our bodies get the nutrients it needs can get more difficult with age. We’ve shared a quick run down below. 

Ageing on the Body

As we age, our bodies change in a variety of ways, from physiological and perceptual to general age-related conditions and an increase in gastrointestinal or dental conditions. These changes influence how our body performs as a whole, which in turn has an effect on our nutritional intake, eating patterns, and overall health. Those who receive private care tend to have better eating habits as their nutritional needs are attended to on a daily basis, and healthy foods can be prepared to their individual tastes and preferences. 

Physiological Changes

In later life, our nutritional needs change. Our energy expenditure decreases due to a slower basal metabolic rate and less physical activity. This means we require fewer calories in our diet, and our overall dietary intake tends to naturally decrease. Our bodies also begin to function differently, with a redistribution of body composition, decreased kidney function, and changes to our nervous system. 

As our bodies slow down, natural wear and tear on our organs and internal systems can make us more prone to chronic diseases. For example, heart disease is more likely to impact those over 65 years old. Many chronic conditions including heart disease can worsen due to poor dietary choices. For example, food and drinks that are high in saturated fat and sugar can increase cholesterol in the blood, and make it more difficult for enough blood to flow through the body – putting additional pressure on the heart and circulatory system. 

Bone health can naturally decrease as we age too. Bone can become weaker which can increase the risk of falls and injury. This means maintaining an adequate calcium intake from a variety of foods is essential for many. The NHS suggests things like leafy vegetables, milk, cheese, anything made with fortified flour, and fish with edible bones – such as sardines. 

Perceptual Changes

As we age, we experience perceptual changes that can influence our nutrition, such as changes in taste, smell, and hearing. Diminished taste buds can result in food flavours seeming more sour or bitter. When you lose the sense of smell, your desire to eat certain foods diminishes, often resulting in poor nutritional choices. Poor hearing affects our food experience and nutrition, and eating out may lose its appeal if you can no longer hear the people you are dining with.

Other Age-Related Conditions

Other body function changes that can result in a poorer nutritional intake include gastrointestinal and dentition. The loss of teeth or ill-fitting dentures can mean older people avoid hard or sticky foods. Chronic gastritis, delayed stomach emptying, gas, and constipation resulting from eating healthy fruits and vegetables can mean that older people choose to omit them from their diet.

If you’re looking after a loved one, it’s important to look out for signs of unintentional weight loss – if you’re ever concerned about their weight or appetite, seek the support of a health professional. 

An estimated 3.7 million seniors suffer from malnutrition and educating seniors and caregivers on the needs of an older person’s diet is essential. Having a live-in carer who is well-trained and educated will ensure that your loved one receives a nutritionally balanced diet.


Seniors, Nutritional Deficiencies, and Malnutrition  

Malnutrition in varying degrees is common among elderly people as well as various vitamin deficiencies. While we do not see extreme effects such as scurvy any longer, malnutrition due to imbalances in diet, nutrient deficiencies – and undernutrition generally – are regularly seen by physicians. Symptoms of this milder form are general malaise, lack of appetite, and lack of overall wellness and interest. Inadequate intake of vitamins is common, and these include vitamins A, B, C, D, E, niacin, and folic acid.

Other reasons for malnutrition are financial concerns which can result in a reduced food shopping budget, fear of personal safety when out shopping, or lack of mobility. Other causes might include hospitalisation or institutionalisation, eating alone or lack of cooking or someone to cook for, and the loss of a spouse or family member. When a person becomes malnourished, they are more susceptible to developing other illnesses and diseases. Additional adverse side effects can include psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, and fatigue.

It is clear that nutrition plays a crucial role in the health and quality of life of an ageing population. For this reason, preventative medicine and a focus on good eating habits are vital in elderly care, especially among home care staff and dementia care personnel. Ensuring this senior age group has a proper intake of minerals and vitamins and adequate nutrition will keep them feeling healthy and maintain their quality of life for longer.

Additional considerations for people with dementia 

Adults with dementia can face a range of additional challenges when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet and proper nutrition. 

In the early stage of dementia, when cognitive function starts to be impacted, a person may struggle to shop for themselves. The bright lights, noise, and overwhelming choices in supermarkets can prove too much – and lead to inconsistent dietary choices or an overreliance on convenience foods or ready meals. 

Some people believe a more Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of dementia, and help slow the progression of some forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease – particularly in the early stages. This diet is rich in vegetables, legumes, and cereals, and includes moderate consumption of olive oil, fish, and omega-3 fatty acids. Some studies have found that sticking to this type of diet may reduce memory and thinking problems, however, more research needs to be done. 

People living in the middle and late stages may find it difficult to remember when they last ate, and behavioural symptoms connected to sundowning may make sitting down regularly for a full meal more difficult. 

Advanced dementia can sometimes impact a person’s ability to chew and swallow. To ensure they stay properly hydrated and get the nutrients they need, offer small cups of liquid foods such as soups, milkshakes, and smoothies.

Mealtime considerations 

In the mid to later stages, too many distractions and options can make it difficult to concentrate on the task of eating. Offering one type of food at a time may help. Avoiding bright, patterned plates and tablecloths is important too – however, ensuring the plate is a different colour from the table and easy to distinguish can help with focus. This is because dementia can change a person’s spatial abilities. 

 It’s also a good idea to check the temperature of any food – as people with dementia may struggle to tell if something is too hot to consume. 

Finally, if a person with dementia struggles to remember what they ate and which meal times they’ve already had, don’t worry. If they keep asking for lunch, it’s ok to serve them a few small lunches throughout the day, as long as these are small and healthy – for example, a small finger sandwich on wholemeal bread, followed by a small side salad. 

Healthy Diet

A healthy well-balanced diet for any age group should include a combination of the following:

  • Five portions of vegetables and fruit a day – including a good amount of green vegetables 
  • Protein from fish, meat, pulses, and egg sources
  • Carbohydrates such as potatoes, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, couscous, and cereals
  • We should also limit the amount of alcohol and salt in our diets
  • Fluid intake – can be more difficult to control in later life, as we naturally lose our sense of thirst 

While these are the basics for everyone, an adequate intake of a few specific nutrients is hugely important in later life. These include calcium, fat, fibre, fluids, iron, vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc. 

If your loved one receives in-home care, ensure their caregiver is aware of all the dietary requirements your loved one needs. This is particularly important when your loved one receives Alzheimer’s or dementia care, as they may be prone to forgetting what they need to eat or to eat at all. For the best care at home, consider private live-in care where your loved one’s every need is looked after, including all nutritional requirements. You might also find that the cost of live-in care in the UK is considerably cheaper than a care home.



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Learn more about dementia care

Take a look at more Elder guides on living with and caring for dementia. 

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