Malnutrition is a neglected issue in elderly care: UK report

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

'Commissioners aren’t necessarily thinking about tackling falls by tackling malnutrition,' says Age UK. © / Attila Barabas
'Commissioners aren’t necessarily thinking about tackling falls by tackling malnutrition,' says Age UK. © / Attila Barabas

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Only half of UK health professionals think malnutrition is a priority in their organisations, a survey commissioned by charity Age UK has found.

The survey of 1518 health professionals showed only 51% thought malnutrition was a priority in their organisations while just 47% felt confident their knowledge and skills were sufficient to help people most at risk.

The survey ‘Experiences of Patient Malnutrition’ conducted by Dods Research on behalf of Age UK also found half were unsure about what services or support were available in their community. 

Talking with NutraIngredients, Age UK’s health programme director Ruthe Isden said the results showed more efforts were needed to make nutrition and hydration “top of mind” ​when dealing with older people.

About 1.3 million older people suffer from malnutrition in the UK, with the vast majority (93%) of those living in the community.  

This was only set to worsen with rapidly increasing average population ages.

The number of people aged 60 and over is set to increase globally from today’s estimated 931 million to 1.4 billion by 2030. In the UK nearly one in four people are expected to be aged 65 or over by 2040.

Asked if the UK government was facing up to this burgeoning issue, Isden said: “The penny is slowly dropping but on the ground action is needed.”

Dianne Jeffrey, chair of the independent expert group Malnutrition Task Force and chairman of Age UK, called malnutrition a “really knotty problem”​ in the need for a wide range of services to make relatively simple interventions like awareness and supplementation effective. 

“However, at the moment the sad fact is in too many areas this isn’t happening. Malnutrition is often overlooked and isn’t tackled very effectively at any point in the care journey, so many people slip through the net and never receive proper help.” 

Isden said current initiatives were happening in silos. If an older adult was treated in hospital for malnutrition, this fact was not always relayed back to doctors, family and care homes upon discharge. 

A more joined up approach was needed, she said.   

On the front line

The survey found attitudes varied significantly according to whether respondents were involved in front line services.

Front line professionals were significantly more likely to identify preventing and treating malnutrition as a high priority compared to senior staff away from the front line and those responsible for financial decision making such as commissioners. 

Isden said this reflected what the charity had seen anecdotally, which was that those working with the elderly daily were more in tune with the grave impact of malnutrition.

“I think this partly speaks to the long-held belief that that’s just what happens when you get old: you get frail.”

Organisations like Age UK were now working to dispel this belief and show the efficiency gains possible within the health care system if malnutrition was properly addressed.

Last year a report from the British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (BAPEN) and the UK National Institute for Health Research Southampton Biomedical Research Centre estimated the cost of malnutrition in adults and children in England alone in 2011-12 was £19.6bn (€26.96bn) – a figure set to increase with an ageing population.

They estimated savings to health and social care of between £172 (€236.67) and £229 (€315.16) million per year could be made with improved nutritional care for various groups of malnourished adults.

Yet Isden said this wasn’t currently the way the issue was seen.

“Commissioners aren’t necessarily thinking about tackling falls by tackling malnutrition,”​ she said.

Last month the UK's Malnutrition Task Force released guidance​to try to steer local health commissioners and authorities towards better malnutrition strategies. 

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