Malnutrition in Older Adults

In this country we have increasing life expectancy due to better health and medical treatment for disease. People are living longer, but this also means that certain diseases are more prevalent.

One condition The Gut Foundation is particularly interested in is ‘malnutrition’. This is a condition that can affect anyone of any age, but is common in the older age group. Malnutrition is a clinical word for a state of poor nutrition in a person. The body is either not receiving the correct nutrients from the diet for a number of reasons, or the body is unable to absorb the nutrients from food due to a problem with digestion.

Past Research.....

Past research The Gut Foundation and other research centres have carried out, has shown that poor nutrition in the elderly is at a very high rate. Malnutrition has been blamed for a number of preventable medical problems, and ultimately can cause unnecessary suffering and premature death.

Consequences of Poor Nutrition

Untreated, malnutrition can lead to bone weakness and fractures, increased incidence of wounds or ulcers which do not heal easily, and a reduced ability to fight off infection. Routine surgery on a person with malnutrition can lead to post-operative infections, a slow recovery, and ultimately a poorer outcome for the individual.

The Gut Foundation found out back in 2007, that 80% of the elderly being admitted to The Prince of Wales Hospital were either malnourished or showing signs of poor nutrition. Further tests were then carried out on these individuals and it was found that some had a ‘leaky gut’. This meant their small bowel was not absorbing nutrients as it should.

Small Bowel Bacterial Overgrowth

It is also known from past research that many elderly people have excessive amounts of bacteria in the small bowel, a condition known as ‘small bowel bacterial overgrowth’. Bacteria should be present in the bowel but should mainly be found in the large bowel, the last part of the intestine.

In 2009 The Gut Foundation started a project looking at the nutritional levels of a group of people living in the community of the age of 60 or over. The Gut Foundation wanted to see if there was a problem with nutrition levels in a well and independent group of older adults. In addition they wanted to see if this group of people had any evidence of ‘small bowel bacterial overgrowth’ or ‘leaky gut’ which had the potential to cause the malnutrition seen in other elderly people. Small bowel bacterial overgrowth has also been identified as compromising the ability of an individual to absorb not only the nutrients from their diet, but also their medications. A reduced ability to absorb medications can have knock on lasting effects to management of medical conditions.

What we found out....

The Gut Foundation spoke with and tested 175 people. Initially a quarter of the people showed evidence of malnutrition or risk of developing malnutrition. After six months, this level had increased to almost a third. Other measures taken, showed a decrease in muscle mass during this time, which is an indicator of poor nutrition and can have poor health consequences.

The other tests done showed that there was no evidence of a leaky gut in the group of people, however more than a third of people had shown evidence of a disrupted level of bacteria in the small bowel. The results tell us that there seems to be a change in the bacteria in our small intestine as we age and this change has the potential to cause malnutrition.

The Gut Foundation is committed to researching this condition further and finding potential treatments for this imbalance in the bowel which has such serious consequences.

If you would like further information on this study, or past research in this area, please contact The Gut Foundation on 02 9398 9546, or e-mail Katherine@gutfoundation.com.au