Research for the Malnutrition Prevention Project has found that many older people need to have a better understanding of nutrition to avoid putting themselves at risk.
The study, by think tank Britainthinks, shows that older people often avoid fatty and high-calorie foods because they think they are bad for them − even though they could be vital for those at risk of malnutrition.
Around one in 10 older people in England are believed to be at risk of or are suffering from malnutrition, and up to a third are malnourished or at risk when they are admitted to hospital.
“With the right support at the right time malnutrition is often preventable”
The findings come as health minister Dan Poulter is due to give a keynote speech at the first national conference of the Malnutrition Task Force, which runs the Malnutrition Prevention Project.
The project, funded by the Department of Health, was set up by the government in response to the report into the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust scandal, which found that many patients had not been able to eat or drink properly.
Dr Poulter, who is due to announce funding for the second stage of the project, said: “After the tragic failings at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust, the Malnutrition Task Force was launched to ensure that patients’ basic needs for food and water are always met.
“Additional funding for this project will ensure that we can continue to raise awareness about the dangers of malnutrition.”
The project is aimed at older people with a low body mass index and those who are losing weight without trying. Its aims include improving care and support for those who are most at risk, and to raise awareness of the symptoms among older people.
Dianne Jeffrey, chair of the malnutrition task force and chair of Age UK, said: “We tend to think of malnutrition as a problem affecting the developing world.
“But here in England we know that at least one million older people are suffering from or are at risk of malnutrition and dehydration − many of them undiagnosed and fending for themselves in the community.
“The consequences of malnutrition and dehydration are very serious. People become more susceptible to illness and injury and recovery takes longer. Yet with the right support at the right time it is often preventable,” she said.
“We believe by raising awareness of it in the community − among older people, their families and carers and across the NHS − we can truly tackle it and help older people remain healthy and strong.”
NHS England chief nursing officer Jane Cummings is also due to address the conference.
In her speech, she will focus on how best to prevent malnutrition and dehydration in older people and give examples of ways in which malnutrition is being tackled.