What does growing old mean? Too many of us seem to believe that becoming thin and frail is an unavoidable part of ageing. This is the conclusion of a large-scale study commissioned by Abbott and supported by the Patient Association which found that 94 per cent of us fear injury in later life, nearly half worry about getting ill and 85 per cent worry they will not be able to care for themselves.
In fact, there is nothing set in stone about ageing. People can enjoy healthy mobile old age with plenty of energy and get up and go – if they take the right steps.
The most worrying thing is the sense of inevitability that many people seem to feel, which includes members of the healthcare community. This is having a direct impact on the quality of life for patients who may not take steps to ensure that they stay strong and well nourished and the quality of care in hospitals. Three-quarters of over 65s who were recently hospitalised for illness or injury were not given any nutritional support either while in hospital or after discharge. Yet we know this is precisely the time when many older people need extra nutrition – when they are bed bound and away from home and their normal routine.
Healthcare workers are at the frontline of the problem and can make a huge difference to outcomes. For this reason, we have devised the I-CARE checklist, where professionals can look for easy-to-spot visible signs of malnutrition. Family members and loved ones can use this simple check list too.
I-I will check
C- Clothing. Weight loss can be a sign of malnutrition so look at clothing. Is it loose or ill fitting? This could be a sign that they are not eating properly.
A-Appetite. Loss of appetite is key. Are they eating less? Do they make excuses about not being hungry? With weight loss, dentures can become loose and ill fitting making it harder to eat, so watch out for this too.
R-Rings. Jewellery can often become ill fitting with weight loss. Keep an eye on items, such as wedding rings, that people may have worn for years, suddenly becoming loose.
E-Energy. With lack of food, appetite and weight loss, can also come a lack of energy. Do they seem more lethargic or struggle to keep up in a way they never used to?
We have to change expectations. The stereotype of a frail OAP may actually be stopping people from getting the medical advice they need to stay well. GPs have an important role in asking the right questions and reassuring patients. They can start the conversation about diet and exercise and if necessary. Refer a patient on to a dietitian.
There is a huge amount to be done to raise awareness about the benefits of good nutrition and exercise. The right diet can slow down muscle loss and boost energy. We also need to make people aware that change needs to start early. Almost all the people who took part in our survey failed to recognise that muscle loss begins at 40: with nearly a quarter saying that muscle loss begins at 60 or over. But whatever time you start to make change, you can reap benefits.
There is no such thing as an inevitable decline into old age and we all need to think of life beginning at 50. There is so much we all can do to have the best chance of enjoying a long life.