Imagine an older woman who lives up the street who has trouble getting around physically, says Oregon State University researcher Ellen Smit. "She may be at risk for food insufficiency -- hunger -- just because she has trouble getting around."
Older Americans with limited physical mobility -- scientifically categorized as "frail" -- are five times more likely to report they don't have enough food to eat than seniors who aren't frail, according to a national study that Smit authored.
The nationally representative study of more than 4,700 adults older than age 60 in the United States used data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Food insufficiency is a growing problem among the elderly. In 2010, 8.3 million Americans over 60 faced the threat of hunger -- up 78 percent from a decade earlier, according to a 2012 Meals on Wheels report. That same report said the proportion of seniors affected grew to one in seven in 2010 from one in nine in 2005.
Studying the effect that physical frailty has on seniors' ability to get proper nutrition helps pinpoint solutions, said Smit, an epidemiologist at Oregon State University's College of Public Health and Human Sciences and lead author of the newly released study. "Physical function is everything when you are aging," said Smit.
Frailty was defined as a state of decreased physical functioning and/or had complications of aging that increased the risk for falls, fractures, disability, or premature mortality. People in this study were diagnosed as frail when they met two of the following criteria: slow walking, muscular weakness, exhaustion and low physical activity.
With more than 20 percent of Americans expected to be older than 65 by 2030, the need for identifying clinical and population-based strategies to decrease the prevalence and consequences of frailty are needed, Smit said. “We need to target interventions on promoting availability and access to nutritious foods among frail older adults,” Smit said. “It is also important to improve nutritional status while not necessarily increasing body weight.”
Frail adults frequently have difficulty leaving the house, for instance, and accessing fresh fruits and vegetables, Smit said. She suggested that communities or nonprofit organizations could deliver nutritious meals or fresh produce to older frail adults.