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Friday, 29 December, 2000, 12:42 GMT
Elderly patients 'malnourished'
Elderly patient
The elderly do not always eat well
More than half of the elderly patients admitted to hospital are malnourished, according to shadow health secretary Liam Fox.

He says malnutrition is the "hidden taboo" of the NHS

Dr Fox claims the problem delays the recovery of thousands of patients, costing the NHS millions of pounds.

He was speaking shortly after the government announced the appointment of celebrity food guru Loyd Grossman, former host of BBC's Masterchef, to oversee a shake-up of hospital food.

It is hoped his appointment will improve the quality of food, helping patients recover from illness.

Many elderly, lonely or deprived people have a nutritional status which should shame the world's fourth biggest economy at the beginning of the 21st century

Dr Liam Fox
Shadow health secretary

Dr Fox said that some 15% of children, 40% of adults and 60% of elderly people showed signs of malnutrition when they arrive in hospital.

It is thought that the causes of malnutrition among the elderly include reduced appetite due to long-term ill-health, social isolation and poverty.


A former GP, Dr Fox said: "I chose to raise this issue at this time because my own experience as a doctor in the community led me to believe this is a huge hidden taboo subject which needs to be brought to public attention.

"While the Government spend their time on photo-calls with celebrity chefs, many elderly, lonely or deprived people have a nutritional status which should shame the world's fourth biggest economy at the beginning of the 21st century.

"The Conservative Party will raise this issue, even if Labour find it inconvenient to do so."

He said medical professionals in all specialities should be alerted to the threats which malnutrition poses.

He quoted a 1992 study by the health think-tank the King's Fund, which found that the problem cost the NHS around 260m a year.


A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said 40m was being invested into hospital food over the next four years with leading chefs and dieticians compiling a new NHS menu and food guidelines.

She added: "We are determined to ensure that older people are helped to recover faster by eating nutritious meals whether they are in hospital or at home."

The forthcoming National Service Framework for Older People would, she said, take into account any proposals for reducing malnutrition of the elderly living at home."

An Age Concern spokeswoman said malnutrition would be a problem for the elderly as long as the basic state pension was at its current level.

"We would look at pensioner poverty as one of the causes of malnutrition."

She said the charity had done its own research that showed that elderly people needed at least 90 a week to live on, after they have paid housing costs - more than the current pension.

"People are left with having to make choices between feeding themselves and heating, particularly at this time of year."

A spokeswoman for the BMA said medical professionals should be aware of the possibility of malnutrition, especially among elderly patients admitted to hospital.

"At least two-thirds of hospital admissions are people of 65 or over, and the older the patient, the more likely they are to have multiple health problems.

"Looking for signs of malnutrition is part of the whole person assessment completed when patients are admitted."

Affect on health

Earlier this year, researchers found one patient in every five admitted to hospital in the UK was malnourished.

A team, from Abbott Laboratories, Maidenhead, screened patients for signs of malnutrition on admission to four UK hospitals, in North Staffordshire, the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Oxford Radcliffe and Rotherham District General.

They found that patients who were malnourished stayed in hospital for a longer time, required more prescriptions and were more likely to suffer from infections.

A separate study by researchers from Glasgow found malnutrition was only picked up in 25% of cases.

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