Marriage protects against malnutrition in old age

Determinants of incident malnutrition in community‐dwelling older adults.

Portrait of beautiful elderly woman in cafe
Portrait of beautiful elderly woman in cafe Image: Colourbox.de

Poor nutritional status and malnutrition in the elderly population are important areas of concern. A new study by the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) suggests that people who are unmarried, separated or divorced are most often affected by malnutrition.

This is particularly about men. On the other hand, women who are either married or widowed tend to take better care of themselves.

Prof. Dr. Dorothee Volkert, research head said, “Malnutrition can occur at any age, but elderly people aged 65 and above are particularly prone to it. We speak of malnutrition when people have a drastically reduced dietary intake and the body lacks energy and nutrients as a result.”

“The consequences of malnutrition are manifold. They range from weight loss to a weakened immune system or functional impairment of muscles and all organs. The body falls back on all its reserves.”

Dr. Volkert along with her collaborators from seven countries, working on a project Malnutrition in the Elderly’ (MaNuEL), where they are tracking the causes of malnutrition. The project was launched in March 2016 for a duration of two years.

During the project, scientists shared their knowledge relating to malnutrition in the elderly. They are further planning to make recommendations for screening for and preventing malnutrition in the elderly on the basis of their joint database.

Dr. Volkert said, “Until now, we, unfortunately, didn’t know which were the key factors behind malnutrition. Thus, we are exploring which of a total of 23 variables – ranging from aspects such as difficulties with chewing and swallowing or cognitive impairments to loneliness and depression or moving into a care home – were decisive for malnutrition.”

“The research partners took six existing sets of data from studies on the elderly over the age of 65 and re-evaluated them using a common approach. We then compiled the results in a meta-analysis. The overall result: Malnutrition in the elderly appears to be caused by a surprisingly narrow range of factors. Only age, marital status, difficulties with walking and coping with stairs and stays in a hospital had a significant role to play.”

Almost 4900 participants were involved in the studies. All those surveyed lived in private homes in Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Between 4.6 and 17.2 percent of the participants developed malnutrition over the course of the studies.

Prof. Dr. Dorothee Volkert said, “The older the people are, the more likely it is that they will suffer from malnutrition. The risk increases a little with every year that passes.”

Prof. Dr. Volkert recommends carrying out further studies following the same methods in order to identify further factors. ‘We need a common definition of malnutrition and a uniform design for our studies. Only then can we obtain comparable results and make recommendations for preventative measures.’

The current findings were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.