Walking well and its link with malnutition in older adults

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 21st November 2018

RESEARCHERS are calling for screening of vulnerable older adults at risk of poor nutrition and diminished physical performance, in an effort to identify those in need of dietary intervention.

The New Zealand researchers surveyed 250 older adults living in the community – that is, not in a rest home or care facility – and found 12 per cent were either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition.

How well the adults walked was linked to better muscle mass, BMI and a lower risk of malnutrition, so the researchers say targeting those older adults with low BMI or who have difficulty walking could help identify vulnerable people, improve their health and help them maintain independence.

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Associate Professor Carol Wham, who led the study, says 12 per cent of study participants were either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition.

“Every yearly increase in age was associated with higher odds of nutrition risk. At least one in 10 participants had a low gait or walking speed indicative of low physical performance,” Dr Wham said.

“Those with better gait speed however had lower odds for nutrition risk. Gait or walking speed was positively correlated with muscle mass, body fat percentage and BMI [Body Mass Index].

“At present nutrition screening is under-used. However targeting those who are vulnerable, such as those in advanced age with compromised walking speed and a low BMI and who are a clearly identifiable group, has the potential to improve health outcomes and may help prevent loss of independence.

“Decline in nutritional status is a modifiable risk factor and in most cases, is amenable to intervention.

“But we need to identify those who are vulnerable, so that preventative or supportive strategies can be implemented when needed,” Dr Wham says.

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She says advanced age adults are more susceptible due to the presence of chronic disease, depression and social isolation.

“Malnutrition can become entwined in a vicious cycle for older adults, as it is often interlinked with reduced immune function, weakening their defence,” Dr Wham said.

“Vulnerable people may experience longer hospital admissions, higher mortality rates and are more likely to need long-term residential care.”

Massey University School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition researchers co-authored a paper entitled Associations between nutrition risk status, body composition and physical performance among community-dwelling older adults, which was today published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

Associate Professor Carol Wham led the study, which involved 257 community-dwelling (not living in a rest home or care facility) older adults, with a median age of 79 years, living in Auckland. Researchers carried out face to face interviews and body composition and physical performance assessments at the participants’ home. The respondents  were also asked to complete a questionnaire to assess malnutrition risk.

The paper was written by PhD student Idah Chatindiara, Master of Dietetics students Vicki Williams and Emily Sycamore, Dr Marilize Richter and Associate Professor Carol Wham from the School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition, Massey University and Dr Jacqueline Allen, Department of Surgery, University of Auckland.