January 10, 1999

New research: Nutrition of elderly getting worse

VALDOSTA, Ga. - A new study conducted by a Valdosta State University interdisciplinary team of researchers indicates that the nutritional state of some elderly people is worse now than it was four years ago.

VSU professors Dr. Lynn Bell, Dr. Edna Gillis and Dr. Jack Hasling recently surveyed 88 senior citizens ages 62 to 99 in a 10-county area of rural South Georgia.

Researchers screened the elderly by evaluating a range of health factors, including food intake, health problems, body weight and height. The VSU study found that, of the seniors screened, 63 percent were at high nutritional risk. That compares to an overall rate of 52.4 percent at high risk in a 1994 study by the Georgia Department of Human Resources Division of Aging Services.

"The original need for a study in this area was conceived when the government first talked of proposing cuts in the funding of the nutritional program meals-on-wheels," said Gillis. Researchers note that this food program is the only consistent source of balanced nutrition for many of these older citizens.

The VSU team utilized student assistants to interview elderly at senior centers where government-subsidized meals were provided and also at homes where meals-on-wheels were delivered.

The VSU researchers said that the food intake of those surveyed was largely to blame for the high nutritional risk. Most elderly did not realize they were eating poorly-62.2 percent of those eating at senior centers and 40 percent of those homebound meals-on-wheels participants perceived their health as good or excellent.

While the nutritional risk of the elderly surveyed is rising, socioeconomic conditions also factor into the results, according to Hasling. "Generally, rural counties have higher rates of poverty, and the data we collected is reflective of that," Hasling said.

"Nutritional risk scores are higher than they were four years ago," said Bell. "Health education is needed along with alternate means of meeting nutritional needs of the elderly. Where would these elderly people be without (meals-on-wheels) and what are those not enrolled doing to meet their needs?"

Bell said many of the seniors interviewed simply weren't eating enough of the right kinds of foods.

"Although they reported having enough to eat, many said they had good appetites and could eat more-but were satisfied with what they had," she said. "Nine percent reported eating fewer than two meals per day. Most made a point to emphasize eating at least two meals a day." But Bell and her colleagues discovered that many of the elderly counted their lunch leftovers or some other snack as the second meal of the day.

VSU researchers note that lack of mobility is a primary factor contributing to the poor eating habits. Twenty percent of those seniors surveyed at centers were not always able to shop or cook for themselves.

"For the homebound, mobility was the biggest problem," Bell said. Many of those surveyed were dependent on their children, neighbors and friends for transportation and providing food. Some had health care professionals who came in occasionally to help with bathing and household chores, Bell said.

"The importance of good nutrition in both the prevention and the treatment of many diseases and in the promotion of healthy longevity can hardly be overstated," said Marie Stokes Hill, executive director of the South Georgia Council on Aging, Inc. "VSU is to be commended for recognizing and examining a very real issue affecting great numbers of older adults in our South Georgia service area."

The team's findings have been presented at the 1998 annual meeting of the Georgia Dietetic Association. This study was completed with the cooperation of the South Georgia Council on Aging and partially funded by the VSU Faculty Development and Research Committee.

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