Alarm at elderly malnutrition stats in Illawarra and Shoalhaven

UOW public health nutrition Associate Professor Karen Charlton.
UOW public health nutrition Associate Professor Karen Charlton.

One-third of elderly people admitted to Illawarra and Shoalhaven hospitals are "overtly" malnourished but a novel research project aims to change that.

Researchers from the University of Wollongong have teamed up with clinicians from the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District to design a lifestyle program to tackle the problem which, if successful, could be rolled out nationally.

UOW public health nutrition academic Associate Professor Karen Charlton said researchers were offering elderly Illawarra residents the chance to take part in the three-month program.

"We've been working closely with hospital dietitians across the district who screen all patients aged 65 and over for malnutrition," she said.

"This has given us some very reliable information about the nutritional status of about 5000 older people admitted to both acute and rehabilitation hospitals, and the figures are pretty alarming.

"About one-third of the patients are overtly malnourished, while a further 50 per cent are at high nutritional risk.

"Malnutrition increases the risk of falls, fractures and chronic disease, and is also associated with longer hospital stays and increased complications."

Prof Charlton said while patients were identified early and appropriately cared for while in hospital, most were still discharged in a poor nutritional state. Poor referral systems between hospitals and community services meant that many frail, older people "fell through the gaps".

"Because they are recovering from illness, even if they have been given information on good nutrition they may not feel up to shopping or even preparing food," she said. "Previous studies have found that it's not a lack of access to good-quality food that leads to malnutrition, it's the actual process of getting it onto the plate that is the problem."

The SUSTAIN program hopes to counter that by bringing together a team of researchers and allied health professionals including physiotherapists, occupational therapists and dietitians.

"The program has been designed to help elderly people who have had a hospital stay over the past 12 months to get back on track," Prof Charlton said. "They will attend a workshop at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, which is funding the program, and will be given nutritional advice as well as simple activities they can do at home.

"By incorporating a bit of resistance training, they should have an improved appetite and feel stronger on their feet so are more likely to go out and shop and prepare food."

Those interested should call 0434 077 189 or email before August 8.


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