Among ER patients aged 65 and older, 16 percent were malnourished and 60 percent were either malnourished or at risk for malnutrition. Of those who were malnourished, more than three-quarters said they had not been previously diagnosed with malnutrition, the study authors found.
Those most likely to be malnourished included seniors who: had depression (52 percent); lived in assisted-living facilities (50 percent); had difficulty eating or swallowing due to problems such as denture troubles or pain (38 percent); had difficulty buying groceries (33 percent).
Of the seniors in the study, 95 percent had a primary care doctor, 94 percent lived in a private residence, 96 percent had some type of health insurance and 35 percent had a college education, according to the study published online Aug. 14 in the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine.
"We were surprised by the levels of malnutrition or risk of it among [mentally competent] seniors visiting the ER, and even more surprised that most malnourished patients had never been told they were malnourished," lead study author Dr. Timothy Platts-Mills, of the University of North Carolina department of emergency medicine in Chapel Hill, said in a journal news release.
"Depression and dental problems appear to be important contributors, as is difficulty buying groceries. Given that seniors visit ERs more than 20 million times a year in the U.S., emergency physicians have an opportunity to screen and intervene in ways that may be very helpful without being very costly," he added.
"For patients who report difficulty buying groceries, Supplemental Nutrition Program, Meals on Wheels, Congregate Meals Programs or community-based food charities can be helpful, although other factors may also need to be addressed," Platts-Mills noted.
"The growing role of the emergency department as community health resource makes it an essential place for identifying and addressing unmet needs of older adults. Implementation of oral nutritional supplementation is inexpensive and may reduce overall costs by accelerating recovery from illness and reducing readmissions," he concluded.
The American Academy of Family Physicians outlines how to prevent malnutrition in seniors.