geriatrics

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Elder Hunger: New Efforts To Combat Surprisingly Common Malnutrition Among Seniors

Meals on Wheels, a national home-delivery meals program, has helped some seniors manage their dietary needs as rates of malnutrition among the elderly population rises. (Jeff Gentner/AP)

Meals on Wheels, a national home-delivery meals program, has helped some seniors manage their dietary needs as rates of malnutrition among the elderly population rises. (Jeff Gentner/AP)

By Nell Lake

After her stroke, a 95-year-old woman in New York State found that she could no longer taste her food. She was also unable to feel hunger, so she didn’t know when she was supposed to eat. As a result, the woman began losing weight, grew weak and wasn’t getting the nutrients she needed.

Enter Meals on Wheels, a national home-delivered meals program established by the 1965 Older Americans Act. The woman (who asked that her name not be used) began receiving meals at her home five days a week. This, she says, helped her remember to eat regularly. Her weight improved, and so did her general health.

Malnutrition like hers is surprisingly common. Six percent of the elderly who live at home in the United States and in other developed countries are malnourished, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society. The rate of elder malnutrition doubles among those in nursing homes, where it is 14 percent, according to the same study.

And rates skyrocket among elderly populations in rehabilitation facilities and hospitals: Various measures show an astonishing one third to one half of seniors are malnourished upon being admitted to the hospital.

“Malnutrition is a serious and under-recognized problem among older adults,” says Nancy Wellman, a nutritionist and instructor at Tuft University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

It’s not a new problem. But growth in the elderly population, and concerns about healthcare costs, have helped renew efforts by nutritionists and other advocates to establish screenings for malnutrition in medical settings, and to improve interventions that can prevent or reverse the issue.

Nutrition Complexities

Most basically, malnutrition means not getting enough nutrients for optimal health. In older adults, the causes are complex, experts say. Illness, disability, social isolation, poverty — often a combination of these — can all contribute to malnutrition. An older person may become malnourished because she has trouble chewing or swallowing. The medications she takes may suppress appetite. She may be unable to get to a grocery store. She may live alone, be depressed, or simply be uninterested in eating.

It’s important to know, says Connie Bales, a dietician and faculty member at Duke University Medical Center, that obese and overweight seniors can be malnourished, too. Eating too many calories doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the right nutrients for maintaining muscle and bone. “One can be quite malnourished, yet not be skinny,” Bales says.

High Costs 

Whatever the cause, malnutrition leads to further trouble. It increases older adults’ risk of illness, frailty and infection. Malnourished people visit the doctor and are admitted to the hospital more often, have longer hospital stays and recover from surgery more slowly.

The association between malnutrition and hospitalization goes both ways, say Wellman and other experts: The sick are more likely to become malnourished, and the malnourished are more likely to get sick. Continue reading

More On ‘Sundowning,’ And The Agitation That Can Grip Seniors After Dark

(edward musiak/Flickr)

(edward musiak/Flickr)

Our post last week on “sundowning” — a syndrome in which seniors’ behavior changes dramatically after dark — generated an outpouring of stories from patients, caregivers and people working in hospitals, in hundreds of comments on Facebook.

Many brought up the fact that delirium and sundowning are related. While sundowning is thought to happen in elderly patients with advanced dementia, many people described seeing sundowning in others — like a relative after surgery. While experts aren’t sure how much sundown syndrome and delirium overlap, they agree that not everyone who gets confused at night is sundowning.

Delirium is very common and also gets worse at night. So the first time someone experiences delirium they should be checked for underlying and reversible causes like infections or mind-altering medications.

People also pointed out that sundowning can happen at home as well as in the hospital. For people with severe dementia like Alzheimer’s, this is especially true.

Some commenters referenced “The Visit,” a recently released horror movie where two children are visiting their elderly grandparents who exhibit erratic and violent behavior each night. I haven’t seen it myself, but it seems to be taking the concept to the extreme in the most frightening way possible.

Many of the stories on Facebook were particularly moving. We thought we’d share a few: Continue reading

Earlier:

‘Sundowning’: Why Hospital Staffs Dread Nightfall, And How To Help Seniors Avoid It

By Dr. David Scales

The elderly woman had been normal all day, my colleague told me, tolerating it well when a tube was placed in her bladder to measure her urine. But that evening, she was found wandering the hospital halls yelling in Italian, carrying her urine bag under her arm thinking it was her purse, traumatized that hospital staff were trying to take it away.

Another night in the hospital, a female Sri Lankan colleague saw an elderly man who was convinced she was a Nazi soldier. Reassurances and even a plea from the doctor — “How could I be a Nazi? I have brown skin!” — could not persuade him otherwise. The next day the patient was back to normal, incredulous when told about what transpired the night before.

An 80-year-old man — I’ll call him Bill — came to our emergency room after a fall. He seemed fine and his tests were negative, but his family wanted him admitted over night for observation. That evening, he began shouting out, repeatedly wanting to get up and walk to the bathroom (forgetting he had just gone). Our calming efforts only riled him up more.

This erratic nighttime behavior is called “sundowning.” Staff in hospitals and nursing homes always worry what will happen as twilight approaches. As the sun sets, many elderly patients can change drastically: They can become extremely confused, agitated, not know where they are, and even hallucinate. In other words, they exhibit signs of delirium, a confused state that can lead them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.

Ulrich Joho/Flickr

Ulrich Joho/Flickr

Thankfully, not every elderly patient sundowns, but when one does, it can be emotionally traumatizing for everyone. To be confused or hallucinate, or to see a relative acting out in irrational ways, is frightening and destabilizing. Yet, sundowning seems to be extremely common. So, what is it? Why do people sundown? And what can you do to minimize the risk of sundowning in yourself or a close friend or relative?

Experts agree that confusion and agitation are more common in the evening and at night. But there is surprisingly little scientific consensus on what sundowning actually is.

The debate is in how much sundowning and delirium are related. Some experts think they’re the same thing, others separate but related entities.

It’s hard to study sundowning without a clear definition and diagnostic criteria. Experts can’t even be sure how often it happens. A recent review found a rate of anywhere from 2.4 percent to 66 percent. Continue reading

Calcium, Vitamin D For Osteoporosis: Are Recommendations Skewed By Conflicts Of Interest?

A photo illustration shows over-the-counter calcium supplements. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

A photo illustration shows over-the-counter calcium supplements. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth Intern

Might commercial influences be driving the widespread recommendation of calcium and vitamin D supplementation for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis?

That’s the conclusion of an analysis published in the journal BMJ, written by Andrew Grey and Mark Bolland, endocrinologists and associate professors at the University of Auckland.

The analysis — strongly refuted by organizations that advocate for osteoporosis research — further complicates the already contentious issue of whether it’s a good idea to take the supplements and if so, at what dosage.

The Supplement Conundrum

Women over 50 are most likely to develop osteoporosis, a bone disease affecting millions of Americans that results in bone weakness and increased risk of fracture. Calcium and vitamin D supplements are widely recommended to prevent and treat the condition.

“But as we point out, the considerable body of randomized trial evidence doesn’t support that practice,” Grey, the study’s co-author, wrote in an email.  “We wondered why practice hasn’t changed to reflect the evidence.”

To promote bone health, over half of older Americans take calcium and vitamin D supplements, which can be prescribed by a doctor or purchased over the counter, the authors write.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends adults take in 1,000 mg of calcium per day (1,200 for adults 70+ and women 51-70) and 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D — 800 IU for the 70+ set.

As of 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not recommend daily calcium and vitamin D supplementation for non-institutionalized postmenopausal women to prevent fractures. This, they note, is not necessarily inconsistent with the IOM’s recommendations, which do not specifically discuss fracture prevention.

The supplements have been standard clinical practice in preventing or treating osteoporosis in older adults since the early 2000s. Since then, however, studies have emerged to contest their effectiveness, according to the paper. Continue reading

Elderly And Drugged: Far More Psych Meds Prescribed To Old Than Young

Evidence suggests that anti-anxiety medications like Xanax increase the risk of falls in older adults, which can cause a cascade of problems. (johnofhammond/Flickr, with edits by WBUR)

Evidence suggests that anti-anxiety medications like Xanax increase the risk of falls in older adults, which can cause a cascade of problems. (johnofhammond/Flickr, with edits by WBUR)

By Nell Lake
Guest Contributor

Are we over-treating the elderly with psychiatric drugs?

That’s the natural question arising from a recent report that found adults over 65 are receiving psychotropic medications at twice the rate of younger adults. The study, published in this month’s Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, also found that elders are much less likely to get their mental health care from psychiatrists or to receive psychotherapy.

What’s the problem? First, psychotropic drugs generally pose greater risks to the elderly than they do to younger patients, and non-drug approaches, from therapy to meditation, may be as effective as psychotropic medications for some seniors’ mental disorders, without the risks.

The findings suggest that physicians and insurers should reassess psychotropic drug use among the elderly, says lead author Donovan Maust, a geriatric psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.

Maust’s team used 2007-2010 data from the CDC’s National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and from the U.S. Census to compare the rates at which older and younger adults — those 65 and older, and those 18-64 — get prescribed psychotropic medications during outpatient doctors’ visits. After analyzing more than 100,000 of these doctor visits, and taking into account the fact that the younger population is much larger than the older one, the researchers found that older adults were much more likely to be prescribed psychiatric drugs for anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Researchers also found that these seniors were less likely to receive other types of non-drug treatment for their mental distress.

The importance of all this is fairly clear: The elderly population is booming, and seniors use the health care system more than any other demographic. So, finding safe, effective and appropriate treatments for their mental health problems is critical — for the well-being of a large swath of people, and as a policy matter.

Too Many Meds, And The Wrong Kind?

Psychotropic drugs pose both direct and indirect risks to the elderly: First, the drugs themselves can be dangerous. The American Geriatrics Society lists many psychotropic medications as potentially inappropriate for elderly patients. Continue reading

Happy 100 To You, And You — Centenarians Multiply, At Forefront Of Age Wave

Ethel Weiss, 100, dances with her daughter Anita Jamieson at the “Party Of The Century” at the Brookline Senior Center on Wednesday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Ethel Weiss, 100, dances with her daughter Anita Jamieson at the “Party Of The Century” at the Brookline Senior Center on Wednesday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It’s a rare milestone, to turn 100 — but not nearly as rare as it used to be.

This week in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, the senior center hosted more than a dozen local centenarians for a “Party of the Century.” In the not-so-distant past — centenarian parties in 2002 and 2007 — party organizers had to reach out to centenarians from all of Greater Boston to gather a critical mass for a fete.

But now, the 99-and-over set has so grown that the party had to limit itself to just Brookline, says Ruthann Dobek, director of the Brookline Council on Aging. And if the numbers keep growing, she told the crowd, “we’re going to have to start it at 105 or 110 to be eligible.”

The centenarians are the leading edge of the fastest-growing sector of the population: people over 60. In this state, the population over 60 has grown 17 percent over just the last five years, and the over-60 cohort will soon outnumber people under 20 for the first time in history, says David Stevens, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging. Continue reading

Bullying Is Ageless: Conflict And Violence Widespread In Nursing Homes, Study Finds

Ulrich Joho/flickr

Ulrich Joho/flickr

By Nell Lake
Guest Contributor

For Eileen, who is disabled and reliant on a wheelchair to get around, life in a nursing home isn’t easy. Particularly when it comes to the other residents: “There’s this guy,” she says. “He made advances to me all the time. I did not want his advances. Many times I had to take my grabber and actually strike him to get him to leave me alone.” Another resident, Eileen says, is a “real bully. She has terrorized quite a few people. She tries to boss people around. She says harassing things.”

In coping with this type of hostile behavior, Eileen (who asked not to be identified) has plenty of company. New research released last week shows that aggression among residents in nursing homes is widespread and “extremely high rates of conflict and violence” are common, according to study author Karl Pillemer, professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell College of Medicine in New York. His stark findings, presented at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America: One in five people living in the nursing facilities studied was involved in at least one “negative and aggressive encounter” with another resident during a four-week period.

“In most environments — say my work environment at a university — someone yelling at me angrily is so unusual that it would keep me up all night worrying about it,” Pillemer says. Yet such conflict in nursing homes appears to be routine.

Abuse and Mistreatment

As part of the study, researchers examined patient records at ten nursing homes in New York state, interviewed staff and residents, and recorded incidents through direct observation. In a sample of more than 2,000 residents, 16 percent were involved in incidents of cursing, screaming, or yelling; about 6 percent in physical violence such as hitting, kicking, or biting; one percent in “sexual incidents, such as exposing one’s genitals, touching other residents, or attempting to gain sexual favors”; and 10.5 percent in events researchers labeled “other” — residents entering rooms uninvited, for example, or rummaging through others’ belongings. Continue reading

Aging Gracefully: More Centenarians, With Women Leading The Trend

Usually I don’t care much about the New Year — it’s just a number, right? But this year is a little different because I’m turning 50 in 2014.

It’s not quite as bad as it seems: I still get carded when I buy wine at Whole Foods, and I’m in pretty good shape, with no chronic health problems and no major physical woes. Still, there’s no denying the significance of this half-century milestone. Fifty is, frankly, a little scary; from here on out it’s all about maintenance.

joeduty/flickr

joeduty/flickr

But I got a tiny blip of joy from this Canadian report that shows the number of centenarians (at least those living in Ontario) increased over 70 percent in the last 15 years. Women are leading the trend, researchers report, “making up more than 85 percent of people over 100.”

So, I face the next 50 years with some hope: At Thanksgiving, a 93-year-old relative of mine (who is now dating a 100-year-old man; they met at the 92nd Street Y in New York, apparently the meat market of the centenarian set) told me, “I’m really enjoying my 90s.”

Here’s more from the Canadian study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, via news release:

“Our study highlights that older people are living longer, and women make up a significant proportion of centenarians. The predominance of women among those of advanced age challenges us to consider tailoring health and social care to meet their particular needs,” said Dr. Paula Rochon, lead author of the study and scientist at Women’s College Research Institute and ICES.

The population-based study of centenarians used an estimated 1.8 million individuals 65 years of age and older. This study that documents changes to the size of the centenarian population over the past 15 years found:

•In Ontario, the number of centenarians increased from 1069 in 1995 to 1842 in 2010, a 72.3 per cent increase during this period.
•During the same time period, the 85-99 year age group increased from 119,955 to 227,703, an 89.8 per cent increase.
•Of the 1842 centenarians, 6.7 per cent were 105 years or older.
•Women represented 85.3 per cent of all centenarians and 89.4 per cent of those 105 years or older. Continue reading

Doc: ‘Distorted’ Report May Hurt Hypertension Patient Compliance

By Dr. Daniel E. Forman
Guest Contributor

A recent news article on blood pressure medications and the elderly is stirring up controversy among cardiologists and physicians who treat older patients.

The article, published in The New York Times earlier this month, analyzes a medical study in which researchers looked at the utility of a walking test to identify patients who may not benefit from anti-hypertensive therapy. But the Times piece misrepresents the study, in my opinion, and will likely exacerbate non-compliance for an already notorious problem: the undertreatment of high blood pressure.

Here’s the back story:

The medical study led by Michelle Odden and published online in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine on July 16, was primarily an epidemiologic assessment of a database — not a controlled clinical trial. The study falls far short of an evidence-based randomized trial about hypertension and doesn’t have the rigor of anything that justifies a major therapeutic impact. But The New York Times account on August 8 by Paula Span, described the study as a potential indictment against routine treatment of blood pressure in older adults. Furthermore, the premise of the study, as reported in the NYT, is distorted and the reporter’s characterization of the data exaggerated. (For instance, the study doesn’t clearly refute value of anti-hypertensive medications — it is primarily a trial about treatment stratification.) It does not match other blood pressure trials in rigor and substantive clinical method and it simplifies very complex issues regarding frailty/risk stratification/and even old age. On the basis of the NYT article many patients are likely to become more skeptical about the use of their blood pressure meds.

Odden focused on novel steps to stratify care for older adults with hypertension, i.e., assessing the utility of walking speed to identify subgroups of adults aged 65 years and older who are less likely to benefit from standard therapeutic strategies. The concern is that so-called “evidence-based standards” were derived using data from younger adults and/or particularly healthy trial-eligible older adults and that these treatment parameters may not benefit real-world frail older adults. Continue reading

Why ‘Transitions’ In Health Care Are Dangerous And How To Avoid Them

Transitions in medical care, such as moves in and out of the hospital from a nursing home, tend not to have positive outcomes.

By Fran Cronin
Guest Blogger

With more than 1.6 million Americans now living in nursing homes, many of us are all too familiar with the debilitating cycle of a nursing home admission followed by repeated hospitalizations, a spiraling into decline, and ultimately death.

I know for my 87-year old father, now living in an assisted living facility, the prospect of a nursing home leaves him hoping he will just drift off one night in his sleep.

A new study released this week by Brown University and published in The New England Journal of Medicine, confirms what many of us have observed: health care transitions, such as moves in and out of the hospital from a nursing home, do not lead to positive outcomes. More common are frequent medical errors; poor care coordination, infections and additional medications. For patients with acute dementia, these transitions can exacerbate already present symptoms such as agitation, confusion and emotional distress. Continue reading