Eating Alone Unhealthy for the Elderly

From the WebMD Archives

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."

Overall, Rosenbloom's study found a dramatic difference in attitudes toward eating between married and widowed elderly people. While 98% of those married found mealtimes enjoyable or very enjoyable, just 26% of the widowed felt the same way. A full 50% of widowed people said they ate simply out of habit or to keep from starving.

Zelman says one solution is to get elderly people out of the house and to community centers where they can get at least one nutritious meal a day. Barring that, she thinks the elderly need to be reminded that good nutrition doesn't have to involve a big production in the kitchen. "You could take a can of tomato soup and mix it with milk," she says. "There's some calcium. Add a grilled cheese sandwich and you're batting a thousand."

One geriatric specialist says that in some cases those who are alone might want to eat more often and in untraditional places: "I suggest eating small, frequent meals, high protein snacks -- like yogurt when you're watching television," says Jean Mistretta, PhD, RN, a nursing instructor at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta. "There's something about sitting down at a dinner table that brings on those feelings of sadness and loneliness."