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.
1. Unexplained Fatigue
Fatigue is a common side effect of iron deficiency, which can lead to anemia, indicated by low levels of red blood cells. Anemia can also show up as abnormal paleness. But remember: Other conditions can cause excessive fatigue, including heart disease, depression, or thyroid disease.
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.
Chronic diarrhea can be a sign of malabsorption, which means nutrients are not being fully absorbed by your 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.
6. 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.
7. Lack of Appetite
With age, appetite often diminishes. Taste buds lose their sensitivity. Because seniors tend to be less active, they require fewer calories. 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 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 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. By assessing your food intake, a registered dietitian can also spot nutritional deficiencies.
“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.