Getting adequate nutrition may be trickier for older adults. Because seniors tend to be less active than younger people, they need fewer calories. Yet research shows that older people may need more of certain key nutrients, such as B vitamins and calcium.
Unfortunately, nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition can persist for a long time before they show up in physical signs or symptoms. Still, there are a few indicators that should alert you.
Fatigue is a common side effect of iron deficiency, which can lead to anemia, or low red blood cell levels. Anemia can also show up as an abnormal pallor. But remember, other conditions can cause excessive fatigue as well, including serious illnesses like heart disease, depression, or thyroid disease.
It’s wise to alert your doctor if you feel abnormally weak or tired.
Brittle and Dry Hair
Hair, which is made up mostly of protein, serves as a useful diagnostic marker for nutritional deficiencies.
“When an older person’s hair looks like a fright wig – brittle, dry, sparse – it’s often a sign that their diet is inadequate,” says Kathleen Niedert, RD, director of clinical nutrition and dining services for Western Home Communities in Iowa and a leading advisor to the American Dietetic Association.
Brittle hair can signal a deficit of essential fatty acids, protein, iron and other nutrients. Some hair loss is usual with age of course, but if hair begins to fall out at an unusual rate, nutrient deficiencies may be the cause. Once your doctor identifies the deficiencies, you can treat them with nutrient-rich foods and supplements.
Ridged or Spoon-Shaped Nails
Like hair, nails serve as an early warning sign of an inadequate diet. A spoon-shaped nail, in which the nail curves up from the nail bed, like a spoon (a condition called koilonychia) can be an indicator of iron-deficiency anemia.
If you have iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor may recommend an iron-rich foods such as egg yolks, dark, leafy greens (spinach, collards), dried fruits, beans, lentils, chick peas.
Cracking or inflammation at the corners of the mouth (a condition called angular cheilitis) can be a warning sign of either riboflavin (B2) deficiency or iron deficiency. An unusually pale or swollen tongue is a warning sign of iron or B-vitamin deficiency. A condition called burning mouth syndrome, which continues to puzzle researchers, may arise when iron, zinc or B-vitamin levels fall below the required level.
Again, once you’ve confirmed your specific nutritional deficiencies, they can be treated with nutrient-rich foods and supplements.
Chronic diarrhea can be a sign of malabsorption, which means nutrients are not being fully absorbed by the body. Malabsorption can be triggered by infection, surgery, certain drugs, heavy alcohol use, and digestive disorders such as celiac sprue and Crohn’s disease.
It’s important to consult your doctor if you experience persistent diarrhea.
Apathy or Irritability
Unexplained mood changes, especially feeling apathetic or irritable, can be symptoms of a serious medical illness like depression, but they can also be symptoms that your body isn’t getting the energy it needs.
If you have persistent low mood or forgetfulness, it’s important to get checked out by your doctor.
Lack of Appetite
With age, appetite often diminishes. Taste buds lose their sensitivity. Because seniors tend to be less active, they require fewer calories. Certain medications can also dampen appetite.
“Chronic lack of appetite is a serious warning sign that you may be at risk of nutritional deficiencies,” says Nancy Wellman, RD, past president of the American Dietetic Association. If you find yourself skipping meals because you’re not hungry, talk to your doctor.
Blood tests can indicate if you’re deficient in a number of key nutrients.
“The important thing is to alert your doctor quickly if your appetite changes or you begin skipping meals,” says Wellman. That way, you can head off nutritional problems before they cause serious trouble.