Every year I look forward to winter. For me it means wrapping up warm, bright lights and festive cheer and spending quality time with friends and family. However, for those working in the NHS, approaching winter can bring with it a sense of dread as services prepare for the flu season, among other challenges.
The flu can lead to long-lasting health complications and even death for some at risk groups, including the over 65s. This is because our immune system becomes less efficient as we get older. And for the 1.3 million over 65s who are malnourished, the threat of the flu is even more severe as malnutrition increases susceptibility to infections and leads to longer stays in hospital.
Use the flu jab appointment as a touchpoint
With nearly eight million older adults visiting a healthcare professional this season for a flu jab, it's a good opportunity to ask them about malnutrition.
To help drive conversations around nutritional health as part of the NHS flu vaccination programme, my company, Abbott, is offering free disposable Paperweight Armbands to a number of clinics across the country so malnutrition screening can be carried out quickly while the patients have their sleeve rolled up for their flu jab.
The Paperweight Armband, launched by Salford Age UK, works by simply measuring the circumference of a person's arm - if it slides up and down easily, then the person is likely to be malnourished. It's a simple step, but one that could make a real difference to the lives of those at risk and by catching signs early, reduce pressure on our already stretched healthcare system.
Spot the signs early
Another easy way to check if a friend or loved one may be at risk is to think I-CARE, a simple tool developed by Abbott, with the support of the Patients Association. You may think that losing weight is just part of the aging process; however, weight loss, changes in appetite and changes in mood and energy levels can all be signs of malnutrition.
• I = I will check:
• C = Clothing - weight loss can be a sign of malnutrition, so look at clothing. Is it loose or ill-fitting? This could be a sign they're not eating properly.
• A = Appetite - loss of appetite is key. Are they eating less? Do they make excuses about not being hungry? With weight loss, dentures can become loose and ill-fitting making it harder to eat, so watch out for this too.
• R = Rings - jewellery can often become ill fitting with weight loss. Keep an eye on items, such as wedding rings, that people may have worn for years suddenly becoming loose.
• E = Energy - with lack of food, appetite and weight loss, can also come a lack of energy. Do they seem more lethargic or struggle to keep up in a way they never used to?
If you are concerned about someone not receiving adequate nutrition, there are simple ways to help tackle this at home.
Stay well this winter with good nutrition
• Aim to include protein in at least two meals a day, and pack each plate with foods like eggs, meat, fish and beans, or have a custard-based pudding or full fat yogurt for dessert.
• If a large meal is overwhelming, try to encourage eating little and often, and add cream to soups or butter to mashed potato to increase calories without adding bulk.
• When people are unwell, giving them additional nutrition helps them recover quicker.
• Those with chronic conditions are at higher risk of malnutrition and may need to take a specialised oral nutritional supplement under medical supervision.
Whether you are a healthcare provider, carer, family member or friend, you can help tackle malnutrition this winter. By prioritising nutrition and hydration, we can give patients and loved ones the best chance of recovery and get them back to living healthy lives - while helping to keep them out of hospital.