New Study Finds Malnutrition Common Among Older ER Patients

A new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that many older adults who were seen in the emergency room for health problems also showed signs of malnutrition or the risk of malnutrition, though most had not previously been diagnosed with the condition.

“We were surprised by the levels of malnutrition or risk of it among cognitively intact seniors visiting the ER, and even more surprised that most malnourished patients had never been told they were malnourished,” said lead author Timothy Platts-Mills, MD, of the University of North Carolina Department of Emergency Medicine in Chapel Hill, N.C.

To conduct the study, researchers asked questions of 141 older ER patients over two months last year. More than 83, or sixty percent, of those responding, were found to be malnourished or at risk. Malnutrition was highest among patients with symptoms of depression (52 percent), those living in an assisted living facility (50 percent), those reporting having trouble buying groceries (33 percent) and patients who had difficulty eating (38 percent) which was usually the result of denture problems, dental pain or difficulty swallowing

“Given that seniors visit ERs more than 20 million times a year in the U.S., emergency physicians have an opportunity to screen [for nutrition concerns] and intervene in ways that may be very helpful without being very costly,” said Platts-Mills. Examples of interventions recommended in the study include liquid nutritional supplements and referrals to meal assistance programs such as meals on wheels programs and food pantries.

Interestingly, nearly all the study participants had a primary care physician, lived in a private residence and had some type of health insurance.

“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,” said Platts-Mills.
The study was published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

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