July 15, 2011

SINGAPORE: One in Three Elderly Singaporeans Not Eating Right

JAKARTA, Indonesia / The Jakarta Globe / News / July 15, 2011

Feng Zengkun - Straits Times Indonesia

Singapore. Whether out of a diminished enjoyment of food or the fact that they live alone, one in three elderly people in the city state is not taking in enough calcium, carbohydrates and fiber.

The upshot of their poor food choices? They are at high risk of malnutrition, a condition caused by a diet of too much or too few nutrients such as zinc or iron.

The findings were published recently in two separate studies by Tan Tock Seng Hospital and health-care company Abbott Nutrition.

Together, the studies surveyed about 700 elderly people in Singapore aged 50 and older.

The Abbott study also found that the elderly living in one- and two-room flats have a higher risk of malnutrition.

Experts The Straits Times spoke to said the poor attention many elderly people paid to their diet could lead to more frequent falls, slower recovery from injuries and a host of diet-related complications such as fragile bones.

At a nutrition seminar in Singapore yesterday, Professor Jean-Pierre Michel, 51, head of the geriatric ward at the Geneva Medical School and University Hospitals, called the findings "serious".

He said the lack of a proper diet was linked to a condition called sarcopenia, which causes people to lose muscle mass and strength.

This could lead to the elderly becoming weaker and more prone to falls, he added, noting that about 20 per cent of people who suffer hip fractures die within a year of the injury.

"Half of them never regain their former mobility," he said.

Experts The Straits Times spoke to said reasons for the elderly's poor diet ranged from a lack of interest in food to their living environment.

Dietitian Teo Soo Lay at the Singapore General Hospital said elderly people who live alone have no motivation to cook for themselves. "Most of the time, they will just eat biscuits or plain bread for their main meals, which is very poor nutrition," she added.

Others said natural consequences of aging, such as problems with chewing and swallowing, also put the elderly off their food.

F Kavin Seow, director of Touch Home Care, which delivers meals to the elderly, said it makes sure the food comes in small pieces to aid digestion.

"We don't serve hard and deep-fried food either," he added.

Elderly people The Straits Times spoke to said they were not fussy about food because their sense of taste had declined.

Retiree Dng Soon Kiat, 84, who lives alone in a Chinatown flat, said he drinks two cups of black coffee - for the sharp taste - and eats all three meals a day at a hawker centre.

"Sometimes, somebody will buy me a steamed bun and I'll eat that," he said. "At my age, it all tastes about the same."

Others added more salt or spices such as chilli to give the food an extra "kick". "Otherwise, what's the point of eating if you can't taste anything?" said housewife Jenny Chua, 53, who cooks for her family about twice a week.

Nutritionists said there was no need to totally restrict the intake of salt and sugar but moderation was the key.

They added that more education about the nutritional value of food was needed.

They said the elderly tend to eat more white rice, believing it is good for them, even though it actually offers little nutritional value.

Family members also need to play a role, noted SGH's Teo.

She said some people may routinely serve the elderly the same dishes out of fear that other types of food could be unhealthy.

"That makes food unappealing to the elderly in general. It's important to keep eating interesting to them," she said.

Retiree Irene Teo, 67, who makes sure her family eats together at least once a week, has a simple tip for the younger generation.

"Eat with your parents and pay attention to them. That always makes us want to eat healthily too."

Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia.

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