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 you -- and your doctor -- can watch for.
When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
It’s wise to alert your doctor if you feel unusually weak or tired. Your doctor may prescribe supplements if you have anemia.
2. 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 brittle, dry, and 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.
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.
3. 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 iron pills and iron-rich foods such as liver and shellfish like clams, oysters, and mussels.
4. Mouth Problems
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.