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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Eating Alone Unhealthy for the Elderly

WebMD Health News

Oct. 15, 1999 (Atlanta) -- It's one of the quirks of human survival: Food shared just seems to taste better than food eaten alone. That may be one reason many elderly people who live alone are at risk for malnutrition, according to a study presented last week at the 40th Annual Meeting of the American College of Nutrition in Washington, D.C.

About 2,200 elderly people answered a 10-question survey, which touched on such issues as number of meals consumed daily, ability to buy groceries, types of food consumed, and physical problems that could affect food preparation.

"I noticed as I was entering the data that a lot of the respondents said they were eating alone," says Velonda Thompson, a PhD candidate from the Union Institute in Cincinnati, who conducted the survey. In fact, of the 901 respondents considered at risk for malnutrition, 850 also reported they often dined alone. Thompson says the survey proves that "eating alone is a statistically significant indicator for the risk for malnutrition."

"This is information we've known for years," says Kathleen Zelman, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Essentially, what happens is that as you age the gastrointestinal tract changes. Your mouth changes. Lots of elderly people have dentures. You tend to have problems chewing and digesting. Then compound it with the loneliness." Zelman says that's why many elderly people wind up living on things like tea and toast: "Who wants to cook a roasted chicken and vegetables and sit down alone and eat it?"

"Patients often tell me when they're alone or have lost a spouse that there's no real incentive to cook more elaborate, nutritionally rich meals," says Taylor Graves, MD, a geriatrician at Emory University Hospital's Wesley Woods Geriatric Center in Atlanta. He adds that age-related change in taste and especially smell may add to the problem by cutting down on an older person's enjoyment of food.

The problem of malnutrition in the elderly may be especially acute in women, says Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She conducted a study in 1993 on the effect of widowhood on nutrition. "Women in particular, as caregivers, don't see the value in taking care of themselves," she says. "In my study, a lot of [widowed] women didn't prepare meals. They'd grab whatever is available."

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