UF/IFAS study documents nutritional risk in Florida’s older adults

4H at the Senior Citizens Center

Please see caption at bottom of story.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Older adults who eat at congregate meal-serving sites may come to the meals with significant nutritional deficits, according to a new study by a researcher at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Congregate meals are delivered through the Area Agencies on Aging, administering state and federally funded meal and nutrition education programs with outreach services. Collectively, about 425 congregate sites in Florida serve thousands of meals daily.

In the study, Kelly Springstroh, an undergraduate in the UF/IFAS food science and human nutrition department, wanted to determine if handgrip strength predicts nutritional risk in older adults.

This study showed that handgrip strength alone was a weak predictor of nutritional risk but may be useful as a component of a nutritional risk screening tool.

The nutritional risk was due mainly to inadequate servings of recommended food groups, rather than problems with appetite, chewing or swallowing or significant weight loss, according to the study, led by Springstroh, under the supervision of Wendy Dahl, a UF/IFAS associate professor of food science and human nutrition. Congregate meals have high standards for meeting nutritional quality, Dahl said. They’re often served five times a week, but some people don’t come to the meals every time. Thus, the nutritional risk may stem from the quality or quantity of their other meals, Dahl said.

“There’s new research on handgrip strength and nutritional risk, which is very useful in hospital patients and others,” Dahl said. “It’s about muscle mass and function. Loss of muscle and strength is a sign of malnutrition – people are not getting enough protein and/or calories. Other nutrients are also important, but getting enough to eat and getting enough protein is critical.”

“Older adults need more protein than younger adults to maintain muscle mass and strength,” she said. “Handgrip reflects muscle mass and strength, so it gives us information about nutritional status independent of body weight. It’s not adequate to only assess weight. Older, obese individuals can be at significant nutritional risk if they have a poor quality diet or have lost weight/muscle mass. Handgrip helps us to determine their risk as well as for others with lower body weights.”

Researchers conducted the study at 10 congregate meal sites in North Central Florida.

Dahl said handgrip strength, if tested in combination with a brief questionnaire, may be useful for nutritional risk screening of community-dwelling older adults.

“An inadequate diet and/or weight loss increases risk of malnutrition, and if handgrip can help us identify those individuals, we can intervene sooner,” Dahl said. “At this point in time, there is no quick, validated nutritional risk screening tool for use at congregate meal sites.”

Springstroh surveyed 136 people (ages 60 and older) who eat at one of 10 congregate meal sites in North Central Florida. She measured their grip strength, which is an indicator of muscle strength. Participants also answered questions about their overall diet, whether they have difficulty swallowing and other queries pertinent to older people.

She found that 68 percent of participants showed nutritional risk. Dahl said she was most surprised at the prevalence of participants’ nutritional risk. But she wasn’t surprised that the nutritional risk is mostly due to lower consumption of certain food groups, especially fruits, vegetables and meat, which tend to be more expensive. Congregate meals serve those who are socio-economically challenged, so that might be a factor in their food choices, Dahl said.

Participants in congregate nutrition services program are thought to be at higher nutritional risk than the general older American adult population due to their lower functional, socioeconomic and health status, according to a federal study published in 2015.

Dahl points out that handgrip strength measurements may need to be further studied to be useful in assessing nutritional risk of community-dwelling adults. That may allow grip strength measurements to be included in nutrition risk screening. If so, this may be a great addition to traditional screening, as it takes a quick assessment and can give very valuable information towards treatment, Springstroh said.

The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition in Gerontology and Geriatrics. Meanwhile, the study will be expanded to congregate meal sites around Florida in 2017, Dahl said.

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Caption: Older adults who eat at congregate meal-serving sites may come to the meals with significant nutritional deficits, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Credit: UF/IFAS file.

By: Brad Buck, 352-294-3303, bradbuck@ufl.edu

Source: Wendy Dahl, 352.392.1991 ext. 224, wdahl@ufl.edu