5 Things You Need to Know About Protein Deficiency in the Elderly

1. Why You Need Protein

Protein helps your body to maintain and rebuild muscles. As you age your natural hormones make your body want to hang on to fat–particularly around your middle, a high risk for many illnesses–which means your diet should include less fat and more protein as you age. While the recommendations for daily protein intake are not solid, it is important to talk with your health care provider concerning your diet and nutritional needs. Medical conditions, illnesses and other factors can contribute to nutritional requirements, making them unique to you.

2. Why the Elderly Aren’t Getting Enough Protein

Many factors contribute to the waning appetite of an elderly individual. Complicating medical factors such as chronic pain, depression or other illnesses can certainly be a partial cause of loss of appetite and possible protein deficiency. As you age your appetite often fades on its own. Your sense of smell dissipates, difficulty with pain and movement can make food preparation and cooking challenging, loneliness can also play a part in decreased appetite. On top of that, research is showing a possible increase in the protein requirement for the elderly–perhaps because of decreased muscle mass, increases in the body to retain fat and the slowing metabolism of an elderly individual. Less intake and increased requirement are leaving many elderly short.

3. A True Concern?

Malnutrition and deficiencies in vitamins, minerals and other nutritional requirements are generally not seen in the general population of industrialized countries. Deficiencies generally take a marked period of deprivation to accumulate and affect the body’s functioning. Individuals at risk are the young and the elderly and those in institutions. This does not mean that the elderly do not suffer from deficiencies and lack of energy and fatigue because of poor nutrition. The effects of aging put the elderly at greater risk for nutritional deficiencies–seek advice from your health care provider on what daily requirements are right for you.

4. Protein-Energy Malnutrition (PEM)

Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM)–also referred to as protein-calorie malnutrition–is a condition marked by insufficient protein and calorie intake. A person with protein-energy malnutrition is not taking in enough protein and calories to sufficiently supply the body with its requirement for minimal daily function. It is often seen in the elderly living in nursing homes–and a young child living with poor parents. Half of all surgical patients as well as 48 percent of all hospital patients are affected by PEM as well. Treatment consists of identifying and treating the cause of protein-energy malnutrition and restoration of normal body composition and adequate nutritional needs.

5. Secondary Protein-Energy Malnutrition

Secondary PEM–protein-energy malnutrition caused by illnesses or conditions, such as AIDS, cancer, chronic kidney failure, inflammatory bowel disease–is the most common in the United States. These people are unable to absorb vitamins and nutrients or are unable to convert them to energy properly or efficiently; both essential for healthy tissue formation and proper organ function. As PEM affects those with underlying conditions the most effective way to treat it is to treat the causative disease. That is not always possible and supportive actions need to be taken.

About this Author

Lara Alspaugh is a freelance writer living in Michigan. She is a Registered Nurse and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing from Michigan State University. Her writing has been found in parenting and fitness magazines nationwide and the Internet, addressing health and fitness as well as wellness concerns of families.