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Unsafe Food Can Threaten Senior Health

Assisting seniors at home is a good way to ensure an older adult is eating safely.

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Food poisoning can make people sick at any age, but seniors – many of whom have other conditions or weakened immune systems – are particularly vulnerable. Assisting seniors at home is a good way to ensure an older adult is eating safely.

Q.My 80-year-old father who lives alone got sick the other day and I suspect it could be food poisoning. Are seniors at greater risk for this danger and what can I do to help protect his health?

You'll be interested to know that your question has been posed – and studied – by the medical community as well. Dr. James L. Smith, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wanted to find out if and why seniors are more at risk for food-borne illness.

So he reviewed data from food-borne outbreaks at nursing homes, and compared the immune and digestive systems of seniors and younger individuals as well as evaluating the overall physical well-being of seniors. What he found is most interesting.

Among other things, he discovered that as we age, inflammation of the lining of the stomach increases and a decrease in stomach acid occurs. Because the stomach plays an important role in limiting the number of bacteria that enter the small intestine, a decrease or loss of stomach acidity increases the likelihood of infection if a pathogen is ingested with food or water.

Also adding to the problem is the slow-down of the digestive process, allowing for the rapid growth of pathogens in the gut and the possible formation of toxins.

Seniors' diets and lifestyles also can make them more vulnerable. Malnutrition, for instance, leads to increased incidence of infections, including those that result from food-borne bacteria.

There are many reasons why malnutrition occurs in seniors including a decrease in the pleasure of eating. Medication, digestive disorders, chronic illnesses, physical disabilities or depression may result in a loss of appetite. Good nutrition is an important factor in maintaining a healthy immune system.

Helping seniors buy nutritious food, maintain it properly and cook it safely also are valuable lifestyle factors. Perhaps your father needs assistance. If so, consider discussing with him the option of hiring in-home companionship.

For example, Home Instead® employs CAREGiversSM to go into the homes of older adults to assist them with shopping, meal preparation and light housekeeping, tasks that can help ensure that your dad gets a safe and proper diet.

Last revised: February 10, 2011

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