Alarm bells are ringing over malnourishment rates in elderly New Zealanders.

A first-of-a-kind Kiwi study has found 23 per cent of older people living independently in the community, or newly-admitted to hospital or residential care, were malnourished with a further 35 per cent deemed at high risk.

The research has been conducted by Massey University, investigating malnutrition risks in older people across three accommodation settings. The study was conducted within the Waitemata District Health Board region in Auckland, including North Shore City, Waitakere City and the Rodney District in 2014.

Study leader, associate professor Carol Wham, said the "snapshot" results highlight the need for mandatory screening to fully understand malnutrition risk - with peoples' quality of life at stake.

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"Maintaining good nutritional status is important for remaining independent, yet far too often key aspects of food provision for older people are disregarded or taken for granted, especially among those with health disparities," Wham said.

"It's a snapshot. The prevalence of malnutrition risk isn't well established in New Zealand."

Wham said no clear cause could be identified, with a number of factors at play.

"There's a whole raft of reasons. As people age a lot of physiological elements conspire against them. They absorb nutrients less well and total energy needs are less, so they often don't eat enough food and that's a problem.

"One of the key issues is people who live and eat alone. Eating is socially facilitated, in other words, companionship facilitates eating.

"For people that live alone you can imagine that they don't have the motivations to cook and eat meals."

Reduced food intake can contribute to dysphagia - a condition which causes swallowing difficulties. Wham said this can initiate "a vicious cycle further decreasing food intake and further exacerbating poor swallowing function."

On top of the individual impact, Wham also said the situation also places strain on the healthcare system.

"It's associated with higher infection rates, loss of muscle mass, strength and function, longer length of hospital stays, as well as increasing morbidity and mortality," she said.

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