Withering away: UK report lays bare stark reality of malnutrition

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

iStock / KatarzynaBialasiewicz
iStock / KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Related tags: Older people, Nutrition, Malnutrition

With social care and medical costs are predicted to hit €17.8bn (£15.7bn) a year in the UK by 2030, politicians from all parties have called on the Government to address the issue of malnutrition amongst the elderly.

In a report​ by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger, over a million older people are likely to be malnourished or at risk of malnutrition, a figure set to worsen with an increasingly ageing population.

Loneliness and isolation—the main causes of malnutrition—are often bought about by bereavement, illness, shop closures and a loss of community transport or Meals on Wheels.

“Hidden beneath the radar, there are malnourished older people in this country spending two or three months withering away in their own homes,”​ said the group’s chair, Frank Field MP.

“Some enter hospital weighing five and a half stone with an infection, or following a fall, which keeps them there for several tortuous days, if not weeks.”

In a comparison to figures from 2011, the report said there were now 100,000 fewer pensioners living in absolute poverty.

However, its authors estimate that were at least as many older people who are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition today, as there were seven years ago.

Uncoordinated care

One of the main talking points focused on current procedures that reduced malnutrition to a foot note, with any action happening in silos.

For example, hospitals rarely record malnutrition as a primary reason for admission, with primary causes such as disease, illness, injury, or infection often being diagnosed.

Information recorded does not indicate how influential malnutrition may have been, in weakening their body and mind, as a factor which led to the fall or accident.

Projected figures for cost-of-care made for grim reading as the authors estimated a total annual cost of malnutrition to be €13.5bn (£11.9bn).  

They estimated that this sum would increase to €14.8bn (£13bn) in 2020, and again to €17.8bn (£15.7bn) by 2030.

In discussing ways to tackle the issue, the group also called on Britain’s supermarkets to consider a number of reforms that would prove effective.

These were the provision during set times of the week of assisted shopping, including ‘slow’ or ‘relaxed’ checkout lanes, so that older people can continue to shop independently for the food they wish to eat.

The report also suggested accompanying those shopping sessions with a lunch club in the in-store café area.

Other initiatives included subsidising community travel so that older people could get to the supermarket, both to buy their shopping and to attend the lunch club.

Old does not mean frail

“We are reluctant to call upon the Government, or local authorities, to dig even deeper into their scarce resources to fund new initiatives – as hugely effective as those initiatives may be in countering malnutrition amongst older people,” ​the report said.

“It became clear in the evidence presented to us that malnutrition amongst older people is often intertwined with loneliness and social isolation.

“It is not surprising, therefore, that suggestions around which new approaches are required to protect older people from malnutrition also advocated the provision of meals as a means of interacting and socialising with other people.”

Charities such as Age UK have worked hard to dispel the long-held belief that getting old equates to frailty. ​

Its campaigns aimed at policymakers and the government have been successful in showing the efficiency gains possible within the health care system if malnutrition was properly addressed.

In 2015, 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 €26.96bn (£19.6bn).

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

In 2016 the UK's Malnutrition Task Force issued guidelines​​ ​to advise local health commissioners and authorities on implementing better malnutrition strategies.

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Related topics: Regulation & Policy, Healthy ageing

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