Five Effects of Poor Nutrition in the Elderly

12/08/2014 Tags: all, guides, science, health

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Malnutrition or poor dietary habits are harmful for everyone, but the elderly are especially vulnerable to its negative consequences. Malnutrition involves a deficiency of the main nutritional components, such as protein, carbohydrates, vitamins or minerals. Eating low amounts of fat rarely causes malnutrition because it can be produced from carbohydrates. In critical situations or as a result of diseases that cause a diminished appetite or make food ingestion difficult, even carbohydrates can be produced from amino acids, which are the main constituents of protein. However, it involves consuming muscle protein to sustain normal blood sugar levels required for normal brain function when carbohydrates are deficient. It is the reason why many of the elderly who have a poor appetite exhibit some degree of muscle atrophy. Protein and carbohydrate deficiencies generally occur only in severe cases of malnutrition in the elderly, when they are not able to eat due to a medical problem that affects the digestive system or brain damage. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are more frequent, milder types of malnutrition among older individuals. Here are five effects and consequences of malnutrition in the elderly. 

1) Nutritional Deficiencies Weaken the Bones and the Joints in the Elderly

Most elderly already have low bone density and poor bone architecture even when they don’t experience malnutrition or a deficit of certain nutrients. A low intake of calcium and protein may weaken the bones and the joints, and lead to osteoporosis and arthritis. Osteoporosis is a low bone density due to a poor incorporation of calcium in the bones and a deficient production of bone proteins, such as collagen. It dramatically increases the chances of bone fractures in the elderly. Older women are especially susceptible to osteoporosis because their levels of estrogen (the main female sexual hormone) are dramatically reduced after menopause. Estrogen exerts a protective and stimulatory effect on the metabolism of bones and directly improves the incorporation of calcium and phosphorus into the bone architecture. This nutritional deficiency can be corrected by taking supplements that contain minerals, especially calcium, and vitamin D3, which is a biochemically active substance that directly influences the absorption of calcium by intestinal cells and the incorporation of calcium into bones. The collagen production, which makes joints flexible and strong, can be influenced positively through an additional intake of vitamin C; this vitamin can be obtained through a diet abundant in fresh fruits, or through regularly taken vitamin supplements. If you are responsible for the care of an older person in your household, it is important to understand that bone fractures heal slower in the elderly compared to younger individuals, so the best strategy to avoid any negative consequences is to prevent bone weakness through an adequately adjusted nutrition. Taking care of the elderly who suffered fractures is very difficult, time consuming and may generate unnecessary medical costs, so don’t hesitate to monitor their nutrition properly, especially if they have a poor appetite or may skip meals from time to time. An adequate intake of calcium can be ensured through a daily consumption of milk, fresh cheese or yogurt. Be aware that aged cheese, which some find as more flavourable than fresh cheese, can trigger migraine headaches or episodes of high blood pressure in the elderly since it may contain certain biochemically active ingredients, such as tyramine, created during the cheese or wine aging process.

2) Malnutrition Can Increase the Vulnerability of the Elderly to Viral or Bacterial Infections

Malnutrition hits the immune system of the elderly hard. The creation of white blood cells in the bone marrow, which are responsible for identifying harmful bacteria and viruses, decreases dramatically when the individual has a low intake of protein, vitamins or minerals. The elderly who experience nutritional deficiencies may suffer from severe infections that may be difficult to treat with antibiotics. In fact, since the production of immune cells in the bone marrow slows down considerably in older people, they may suffer from more varieties of infections compared to younger adults. They may also need higher doses of antibiotics and special care during infections. If someone in your family has a persistently diminished appetite, especially the elderly, then seeking professional medical help before their immune system loses its effectiveness is vital. Correcting the appetite through a smart choice of foods and adopting the habit of frequent meals consisting of small food quantities rather than large meals served two or three times per day can help address this bothersome problem. Complications of infections in the elderly can be very severe, especially since many older individuals already take medications for blood pressure, chest pains or neurological disorders.

3) Malnutrition May Lead to Vision Loss Caused By Common Disorders Affecting the Eyes

A low intake of vitamin A, lutein, antioxidants and protein may accelerate and aggravate eye diseases that are frequently affecting the elderly. Malnutrition speeds up vision loss caused by glaucoma, age related macular degeneration, cataracts or diabetic retinopathy, among other vision “threats.” Antioxidants are especially important for vision health since they prevent the “aggression” exerted by free radicals that are created during sustained exposure to light. Antioxidants also protect healthy cells in the retina from degeneration and ensure their rejuvenation and timely repair after damage caused by stress or intensive light. Green vegetables and fresh tomatoes are especially abundant in various antioxidants, especially lutein, which is essential for vision health. Vitamin A, which helps with a healthy metabolism in the cells of the retina, is found in sufficient quantities in egg yolk, carrots and fish. Vitamin C is also important for preserving sharp vision since it also acts as an antioxidant and promotes an adequate synthesis of collagen. It is a protein that facilitates the smoothness and elasticity of the connective tissue, its ability to support organs and protect them from physical shock (skin smoothness and flexibility, for example, are a result of collagen fiber presence in the deeper skin layers.) Vision problems usually create additional impairments in the elderly, such as a disturbed mood, irritability or poor movement control. This is why delaying age related vision impairment through an adequate intake of eye-protective antioxidants (lutein) and vitamins (especially vitamin A and C) is the easiest and most convenient strategy for proper elderly care.

4) A Poor Nutrition Makes the Elderly Susceptible to Degenerative Disorders Affecting the Brain

Nobody knows exactly what is the precise cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Generalised inflammation in certain brain areas due to amyloid accumulations and loss of acetylcholine neurons have been implicated, but no single clear mechanism has been formulated yet. Although poor nutrition may not cause it directly, it may accelerate the loss of neurons in the brain and impair memory, coordination and speech. Malnutrition is also detrimental for the elderly who have a genetic predisposition to Parkinson’s disease. A proper intake of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, but also supplements like Gingko Biloba may help delay and even prevent degenerative brain alterations. Besides an adequate nutrition, nootropic supplements can facilitate the preservation of mental capacities and memory in the elderly who are in the high risk group for Alzheimer’s disease. Nootropics are safe supplements that work gently in the central nervous system to protect and enhance memory, improve the metabolic status of brain cells and stimulate several neurotransmission paths. There is a large variety of nootropic supplements, ranging from substances with mild stimulation properties like L-Theanine to powerful mental boosters like Noopept. Many of them can protect against brain degeneration by supporting brain cell metabolism and keeping the nervous pathways active, especially when the elderly are engaged in some form of intellectual activity or cognitive exercise. Racetam group nootropics, which may work through the modulation of glutamate driven nervous pathways, or the reversible inhibitors of acetylcholinesterase, which work by increasing the availability of acetylcholine in memory processing synapses, are just some of the best choices of nootropics for the elderly. However, the best stack of nootropics for the elderly has to be carefully chosen and elaborated only after gradually trying low doses since many older individuals are affected by hypertension and take medication to correct their blood pressure on a regular basis. Discuss the benefits of nootropics as a brain protective strategy for the elderly with their doctor who monitors their cardiovascular risk.

5) Cancer is More Frequently Encountered in the Elderly Suffering from Poor Nutrition 


Cancer develops when the immune system fails to recognize and destroy abnormal cells that grow faster than normal cells. Malnutrition lowers the activity and the number of immune cells that are used to detect tumor cells and kill them, which is why cancer is not uncommon in the elderly who have a poor nutrition. Cancer is preventable through an adequate support of the immune system, which may include healthier foods choices, diminishing the impact of chronic stress on the body and limiting the exposure to pollutants and toxic foods preservatives.

Malnutrition may have severe and unpredictable consequences in the elderly. Almost all body systems and organs can be affected by the low protein, vitamin, mineral or antioxidant intake that may be a result of a diminished appetite. It is important that the families of the elderly pay special attention to their nutrition and consider introducing nutritional supplements if their loved ones have a poor appetite due to digestive problems or brain damage. The elderly who are in relatively good health should adopt a diet abundant in lean meat cuts, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish, fresh vegetables and fruits, which should be more than enough to ensure a proper intake of protein and vitamins.