Tackling malnutrition

Identifying and supporting older people at risk

Identifying and supporting older people at risk of malnutrition

Professor Jane Murphy holding the nutrition wheel tool Professor Jane Murphy with the nutrition wheel, a tool to identify those at risk of malnutrition

Malnutrition is thought to affect around 1 in 10 older adults, with far-reaching health consequences including an increased mortality rate and greater need for health and social care support.

Early identification and intervention for those at risk of malnutrition plays a critical role in preventing a decline in health, improving wellbeing and reducing healthcare costs.

Professor Jane Murphy’s research has helped to create tools and best practice guidelines to identify and tackle malnutrition and support eating and drinking well.

A registered nutritionist and dietitian, her research journey began with a desire to support older people to lead healthier and longer lives.

“While good nutrition is essential at any age, eating right becomes increasingly important as we age,” Professor Murphy said.

“Many older people will not live longer lives in good health simply because of poor nutrition. Malnutrition is largely preventable and treatable yet still remains a huge problem. Clearly there’s a need for better public health messaging and new ways to help people spot the signs of malnutrition before it is too late.”

Nutrition and dementia: identifying a need

Professor Murphy identified a gap in research around improving nutritional care for people with dementia.

People with dementia often forget to eat, or have problems with chewing and swallowing, which can lead to malnutrition and increased frailty and hospital admissions.

Professor Murphy and her research team collaborated with care homes, councils and Public Health England on a person-centred care approach for people with dementia in care homes.

This research led to best practice guidelines for care homes and a toolkit - comprising a training resource, learning portfolio, training video and guide - for staff to use to ensure that residents with dementia were eating and drinking well.

The toolkit is freely available and is being used in care homes throughout the UK and internationally, with over 5,000 hard copies distributed and over 2,000 downloads of the digital version. It won the 2019 Complete Nutrition Award for Nutrition Resource of the Year, a national award which recognises those whose work has made a significant difference within the nutrition industry.

The success of the toolkit in care homes led to versions for family members and for professionals to use to support older people in their own homes.

Professor Jane Murphy

Professor Jane Murphy

Many older people will not live longer lives in good health simply because of poor nutrition. Malnutrition is largely preventable and treatable yet still remains a huge problem.

Spotting malnutrition in the community

Professor Murphy has also created tools to support family members and carers in assessing older people at risk of malnutrition.

This includes the Nutrition Wheel - a simple, interactive tool, created by Professor Murphy in collaboration with the Patients Association and the Wessex Academic Health Science Network.

Professor Jane Murphy showing another person how to use the nutrition wheel Professor Jane Murphy demonstrating how to use the nutrition wheel

It is designed to be used by family members, volunteers and carers as a ‘conversation starter’ to help identify undernutrition in older people in the community and gives practical advice and signposting to tackle early signs of undernutrition if they are identified.

“Weight loss is often hard to spot in yourself and sometimes we need a family member, loved one or friend to spot those signs for us,” said Professor Murphy. “We needed something simple, straightforward and easy to use.”

Unlike previous screening tools, there is no training required in order to use it and it doesn’t have to be administered by a professional. This means that malnutrition can be identified by those caring for older people, rather than waiting for an appointment with a professional, which was particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic when face-to-face appointments were difficult to arrange.

It was launched nationally by the Malnutrition Task Force in 2019 and they are distributing it nationwide.

Looking to the future

Professor Murphy has now secured further funding to develop a new intervention to support people with dementia with their nutritional care in their own homes. She is also working with a national care provider to deliver best practice in this area to ensure that people with dementia are eating and drinking well. 

By working in partnership with health and care providers, as well as those who can spot the early warning signs of malnutrition within the community, her work is transforming nutritional care - helping people live better, for longer, and age well. 

Find out how Bournemouth University is helping people live better, for longer