How to Avoid Food Borne Illness in Older Adults

Older adults are more likely to be hospitalized due to food borne illness.

By Leah Felderman  

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Pepto Bismol is a necessity in our family. We love spicy food; lactose intolerance doesn't hinder us from trying that new flavor of ice cream. We travel a lot and always experiment with local cuisine. Inevitably, somebody will get an upset stomach and Pepto makes the world right again (usually). And while our adventures in gastronomy make for interesting stories and may even garner a few chuckles, I doubt our rambunctious eating adventures will last past our first AARP membership. Foodborne illness disproportionately affects older people and can be a serious issue, leading to hospitalization and even death. Yes, even here in the United States people perish from food borne illness.

Here are the most recent shocking stats from the CDC:

Yearly in the United States
48 million people get ill from eating contaminated foods.
128,000 people are hospitalized
and 3,000 people die due to food borne illness

Food Born Illness in Older Adults:

Older adults are at an increased risk for food borne illness for a variety of reasons. There are physiological reasons such as the overall slowing down of digestion (allowing harmful bacteria to stay in our bodies longer and become more lethal). As we age our bodies produce less stomach acid (making it more difficult to get rid of harmful bacteria that enter the digestive system) and our organs don't function like they used to (decreased ability to help rid our bodies of harmful toxins). Also, changes in the aging body's ability to smell and taste are affected (helping to indicate food spoilage).

Foodborne illnesses can cause serious health problems for older adults. According to the National Institutes of Health, an older person who gets a foodborne illness is likely to be sicker longer. In addition, older adults are more likely to be hospitalized due to food borne illness and are more likely to have a longer hospital stay than their younger counterparts if hospitalized.

Symptoms of Food Borne Illness

If you get a foodborne illness, you might experience an upset stomach/abdominal pain, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. The symptoms may be mild or more severe. Over the counter medications may easily dissipate your symptoms. Rarely do people rush to urgent care or report their "funny tummy" and "bathroom woes" to their doctor, which is why food borne illness is such an elusive antagonist. Alternately you could avoid gastro-intestinal symptoms and instead exhibit flu-like symptoms, with a fever, headache, and/or body aches. People often confuse foodborne illness with other types of illness. If you get sick or not depends on a variety of factors, including the type of bacteria in the food. The last meal you ate is not always the culprit. You could get sick within minutes, hours, days and sometimes even a meal you ate weeks ago is the guilty party.

Preventing Food Borne Illness

There are so many facets to preventing food borne illness. From shopping smart, to eating safely when eating out, to cleaning out the refrigerator on a regular basis. Below are our top tips to help your aging loved one avoid getting a food borne illness.

  1. Buy pasteurized.
  2. Dairy, eggs, even juice should be pasteurized. It is great to buy farm fresh eggs, fresh juice from a fruit stand, and homemade ice cream from a small dairy farmer. But as you age these luxuries become potentially hazardous to your health.

    When buying pasteurized items from the refrigerated section make certain that your foods have been properly stored. They should be cold, not room temperature, and no items should exhibit “sweat” (which is condensation due to temperature changes).

  3. Adhere to packaging dates.
  4. Make certain of the dates stamped on the packaging when purchasing ALL food items and adhere to them. There are different dates such as expiration dates, sell by dates and best before dates. Some items even have a manufactured/packaged on date and a “picked on” date (for agricultural items).

    Do not consume any products that are past their expiration date! This is a luxury of the iron stomachs of youth and is not worth the potential risk posed to an elderly person. Furthermore, if an item is questionable (although according to its date it is still “good”) dispose of it. Mushrooms belong in the vegetable crisper for salads, not growing on lunch meat in the deli drawer; yogurt shouldn’t smell like blue cheese. When in doubt, throw it out!

  5. Opt for fully cooked and familiar items.
  6. When eating out, be safe and conservative in your dining places and food choices. Choose an established restaurant with a good rating from the health department rather than the newly minted sushi food truck. Make certain to consume items you (and your body) are familiar with so you will know before consuming if something isn’t fresh, cooked properly, or otherwise amiss. Opt for the fully cooked version of your meal; order the cooked tuna instead of the tuna sashimi or the seared tuna.

  7. Store and dispose of items properly.
  8. When eating at home make certain to cook items thoroughly and store items properly. Know what to refrigerate, what to freeze, and how long items will last in their respective storage spots. Use a permanent marker to clearly indicate when an item was stored and/or when it should be consumed by. If you don’t see a date, don’t leave it to fate (throw it away)!

    Clean out the refrigerator on a regular basis. Check dates, make sure opened items aren’t growing mold, be certain everything looks and smells as it should. Don’t forget the cupboards and pantry as well! Long-term shelf life food items also expire. Make sure canned items don’t have any dents and that items are stored in airtight, bug proof packaging.

Leah Felderman BA MA
 

About the Author

Leah is a proud alumnus of University of Central Florida (BA) and San Diego State University (MA). She has worn many occupational hats including teaching, hospitality management, government contractor and non-profit organizer. She is an intrepid international traveler having visited over 60 countries before happily settling down into her new life chapter of domesticity as a mom and Coast Guard wife.



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