Food safety: Why older people face more risk

chow_081415_472218184I often hear that the elderly are more at risk from foodborne illness. Is that true, and if so, why?

It is true that older adults are at more risk for serious complications from foodborne illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people 65 years or older experience just 13 percent of all foodborne illness infections but account for 24 percent of hospitalizations and 57 percent of deaths.

What makes older people more susceptible to these complications? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers an explanation in its Food Safety for Older Adults guide:

  • As we get older, our liver and kidneys may not rid the body of toxins as readily.
  • The stomach and intestinal tract may hold onto foods for longer periods, offering foodborne pathogens more opportunity to cause problems.
  • Our immune system tends to become more sluggish as we age, reducing the body’s ability to fight off harmful bacteria or other pathogens.
  • Older people are more likely to have a chronic condition, such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer or cardiovascular disease, and are also more likely to regularly take medications. Both chronic conditions and some medications can further weaken the immune system.
  • As we age, our senses of smell and taste may wane, reducing our ability to spot warning signs of food that has gone bad. However, it’s important to note that many foodborne disease pathogens don’t provide such telltale cues anyway.

With all this in mind, it’s important for everyone 65 and older — and those who serve them — to take basic food safety precautions, including:

  • Wash hands and surfaces often. This helps prevent the spread of bacteria.
  • Prevent cross-contamination. Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods. Consider using separate cutting boards for raw foods and foods that are ready to eat.
  • Cook foods to safe temperatures. Use a food thermometer to be sure you cook poultry (including ground chicken or turkey) to 165 degrees F, as well as hot dogs, soups, gravy, sauces and leftovers; ground beef to 160 F; seafood to 145 F; and beef, lamb, pork and veal steaks, roasts, and chops to 145 F with an additional 3-minute rest time after removing them from the heat.
  • Refrigerate food promptly — within two hours of cooking or purchasing.
  • Avoid risky foods such as soft cheeses made with raw milk; unpasteurized (raw) milk; raw or undercooked eggs; raw meat; raw poultry; raw fish; raw shellfish and their juices; and luncheon meats and deli-type salads (without added preservatives) prepared on site in a deli-type establishment.

For more food safety information related to older adults, see the FDA’s guide at

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, Ohio State University Extension specialist in Food Safety.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Tips can help senior who loses appetite

My mother is in her 80s and seems to have lost her appetite. She is losing quite a bit of weight, and her doctor is concerned. How can we encourage her to eat more?

First, it’s good that your mother’s doctor is involved. Malnutrition caused by a poor diet can lead to other health problems, including a weakened immune system, problems with wound healing and muscle weakness (which can lead to falls and fractures). In addition, unexplained weight loss often is due to underlying health issues or the use of certain medications. So, keeping health professionals in the loop is essential.

Loss of appetite in seniors could have other causes, too. Your mother might be lonely or depressed. She might be experiencing a reduced sense of taste or smell, which can affect appetite, or of sight, which could make it more difficult to prepare food. She might have dental problems that cause discomfort when she eats. If you can identify an underlying problem, try to address it and you might find your mother’s appetite returns.

In the meantime, there are other things that can help. First, focus on protein, which is especially important to prevent malnutrition in the elderly. Canned salmon and tuna are versatile sources of protein that can be used in or added to a number of dishes. Add extra milk to mashed potatoes to increase protein. Or, ask your mother’s doctor if adding a high-protein supplement to soups, stews or other foods might be worthwhile.

You also could make your mother single-serving homemade frozen dinners that she can easily pull out of the freezer and microwave.

Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Mayo Clinic offer other ideas, including:

  • Encourage your mom to eat five or six small meals a day. This is especially helpful if your mother fills up quickly during a meal.
  • Keep nutritious, easy snack foods readily available, including nuts, peanut butter, cheese, crackers, milk, yogurt, fruit, raw vegetables and ice cream. Keep nonperishable items on the counter or otherwise out in the open as a visual reminder for your mother to have a snack.
  • Add cheese, 2 percent milk, beans, vegetables, rice and pasta to stews, soups and other dishes.
  • Try using new herbs and spices, especially if your mom is on a low-salt diet.
  • Drink milk, juice or even hot chocolate more often than coffee and tea, which provide few calories.
  • When possible, make mealtime a social event. Eating with others often sparks the appetite.

For more ideas, see “Senior health: How to prevent and detect malnutrition” from the Mayo Clinic at