Many seniors prone to food poisoning

Editor’s Note

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.


Foodborne illnesses, commonly known collectively as food poisoning, can affect anyone at any age, but for a variety of reasons, older adults are particularly at risk.

Over 250 foodborne illnesses have been identified. Many of those are caused by food that has been contaminated by any one of a variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites. Others are caused by chemicals or by natural toxins such as those found in molds and mushrooms.

The symptoms of food poisoning vary and depend on the type of contaminate that has been eaten. While some symptoms can be mild or barely noticeable, others can be quite severe. Symptoms can take anywhere from a couple hours to several days to surface, depending on the type of food poisoning that’s been contracted, and they can include an upset stomach, cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever and diarrhea.

In extreme cases, symptoms can include high fevers, frequent vomiting that prevents the retention of fluids, dehydration, diarrhea which last longer than three days, and bloody stool. Medical attention should be sought if any of these symptoms are present.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 48 million Americans are sickened each year after consuming food that has been contaminated. Additionally, the CDC says that 128,000 Americans are hospitalized each year and 3,000 people die as a result of food poisoning.

Nearly half of those 65 or older with confirmed cases of foodborne bacterial or viral infections are hospitalized. This is in large part because our aging immune systems and organs are not as efficient at recognizing and eliminating those harmful germs, but other age-related factors may also play a part.

Many of those germs that cause foodborne illnesses can be killed simply by cooking foods such as meat, fish and poultry at the right temperature for the right amount of time. Unfortunately for some older adults, cooking their meals properly can be a challenge.

Those with dementia or memory problems may not remember how long their food had been on the stove or in the oven and may stop cooking before the food is finished. People with arthritis or joint pain may find it hard to stand long enough to prepare meals, and as a result, they may rush things along.

Older adults may also become sick after eating food that had spoiled. This may be the result of those with memory issues leaving food in the refrigerator past its expiration date or forgetting to put leftover food in the refrigerator after they’ve finished eating. Vision problems may also lead to eating spoiled food if the person is unable to see or misreads the expiration date on their food’s packaging.

Those germs and chemicals that cause food poisoning can be removed simply by washing food and our hands thoroughly when preparing food, before serving it and before eating. Cleaning and disinfecting kitchen counters and surfaces where food is prepared also removes those contaminates. However, it may be difficult or painful with those who have arthritis to properly wash their food or hands when preparing meals, and those with memory issues or dementia may simply forget to wash.

There are some simple steps that should be followed in order to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses. At the top of that list is washing hands, kitchen surfaces and fresh fruits and vegetables. Hands should be washed with soap and water for 20 seconds before, during and after food preparation and before eating. Hot soapy water should also be used to clean utensils, cutting surfaces and countertops where foodborne bacteria and viruses can survive.

Fresh fruits and vegetables should be rinsed thoroughly under running water to remove any chemicals that may have been used during the growing process and any germs that may have been picked up on the journey from the field to the kitchen.

Raw foods like meat, poultry, seafood and eggs should be kept separate from other foods, since germs that would be killed during cooking can spread to foods that are already cooked or do not require cooking. Separate plates and cutting boards should be used for those raw foods, and they should be kept separate from other food in the refrigerator and shopping cart.

Foods like meat, poultry seafood and eggs should be cooked at the right internal temperature for the right amount of time in order to kill those foodborne germs. It isn’t possible to tell if food is thoroughly cooked inside just by looking at it. A food thermometer is the only way to ensure that food is cooked properly.

Perishable food should be refrigerated within two hours under regular conditions and within one hour if temperatures outside exceed 90 degrees. Frozen foods should be thawed in the refrigerator, cold water or the microwave. They should never be left on the counter to thaw since that allows bacteria to spread.

Older adults with memory limitations may need to take additional steps to protect themselves from the threat of foodborne illnesses. In addition to a food thermometer, a timer can be set to let them know when food has had enough time to thoroughly cook, and dated labels on any leftovers will let them know when food was put into the refrigerator and when it may no longer be safe to eat.

People with mild vision problems will want to make sure they are wearing their glasses and have good lighting when they’re preparing their meals, so that they are able to see when food might not look quite right.

Those with other physical limitations may want to consider asking a friend, family member or caregiver to help them with meal preparation, or they may want to consider having premade meals delivered if those services are available in their community.


Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings.


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