Skip to main content

Hidden hunger and malnutrition in the elderly

The extent of malnutrition amongst older people

Malnutrition arises when a person’s body does not gain the nutrients it needs to function properly. Older people are particularly at risk of becoming malnourished, due to a range of unique medical, physical, and social reasons.

The availability of data on the numbers of older people in this country who are hungry or malnourished is limited, to put it mildly.
The most robust estimate presented to us suggests that in 2011, 1.3 million older people were malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. We have not been able to find an updated figure.

We recommend that Public Health England and its equivalent bodies in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, should regularly record and publish up-to-date data on the extent of malnutrition amongst older people.

Some malnutrition amongst older people may be caused by poverty. Another, and perhaps main cause, is social isolation brought about by the loss of one’s partner or an unwillingness to draw attention to one’s suffering, for example.

Compared with 2011, there are now 100,000 fewer pensioners living in absolute poverty. Nonetheless, we estimate that there are at least as many older people who are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition today, as there were seven years ago.

Hospitals rarely record malnutrition as a primary reason for admission, with primary causes such as disease, illness, injury, or infection often being diagnosed. Even so, figures from the House of Commons Library show that the number of people aged 60 and over whose primary diagnosis was malnutrition, more than trebled in the decade between 2005-06 and 2015-16; from 283, to 921.

However, the evidence we have received suggests that even these data do not in any way adequately capture the full extent of the problem. Older people are classified upon entering hospital by the immediate cause of their injury or ill health, such as a fall or another accident, but the data do not tell us how influential malnutrition may have been, in weakening their body and mind, as a factor which led to that fall or accident.

We believe that in an attempt to limit the risk of injury or ill health associated with malnutrition, robust and reliable screening tools must be scaled up across the country so that malnutrition can be identified, diagnosed, and treated much more quickly and effectively in the community.

We call on the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to ensure that at all levels of care, staff are trained to use the Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool, or an equivalent mechanism, to identify older people who are at risk of malnutrition and ensure they receive appropriate food and support to improve their condition.