Older adults, aged 65 and over, are more vulnerable to food poisoning and should take extra care to safely handle food. However, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration consumer survey data, older adults appear to be less consistent in practicing safe food handling than the general population.
The number of seniors living in America is expected to double to an estimated 71.5 million by 2030, and a greater number of these older Americans will stay in their own homes. For older adults who continue to prepare a majority of their own meals and snacks, it is important they prepare foods safely and ask for assistance when needed.
Why Are Older Adults More Vulnerable?
As adults age, their immune systems weaken, making it harder to fight off bacteria and serious illness. Older adults have less stomach acid to control bacteria and weakened kidneys to help filter bacteria from the blood. Once contracted, food poisoning can be difficult to treat and can reoccur. In addition, poor eyesight and sense of smell may keep some older adults from noticing food spills and signs of spoilage.
- By 65, many adults have been diagnosed with one or more chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer or cardiovascular disease, and are taking at least one medication. These factors may weaken the immune system, causing older adults to be more susceptible to contracting food poisoning.
- After the age of 75, adults often have a weakened immune system and are at an increased risk for contracting food poisoning.
Food Safety Changes Over The Years
Over the years, the nature of food poisoning has changed significantly. Food safety practices such as pasteurization, safe canning and water treatment have resolved many foodborne diseases in the United States, including typhoid fever, tuberculosis and cholera. However, new foodborne risks have emerged.
These changes stem from a larger global food supply, new food production and processing methods and more demand for year-round, fresh produce, minimally-processed food and ethnic foods. In addition, microorganisms change and evolve over time. With these changes, we must educate ourselves on food safety and properly handling food at home.
Tips for Older Adults
The good news is that food poisoning can be prevented. Older adults should practice the four simple steps of wash, separate, cook and refrigerate, as well as these tips:
- If needed, wear glasses when handling food.
- Turn up the lights because older adults may have more trouble with glare.
- Label perishable food with a date in a marker that is dark and easy to read – don't rely on memory.
- Cook simple, easy-to-make dishes to save your energy for cleanup. For example, buy pre-chopped, frozen vegetables instead of doing all the prep work yourself.
- Don't rely on sight, smell or taste to determine if food is safe to eat. Always use a food thermometer to check the doneness of cooked foods such as meats, poultry, egg dishes and leftovers. And check the shelf life of leftovers and foods with the Keep It Cool: Refrigerator Storage Chart or download the free Is My Food Safe? app, which features a detailed listing of the shelf life of foods.
- Set up a support system of family and friends to help with kitchen tasks when you're low on energy.
- Refrigerate leftovers right away and reheat them to the proper temperature before eating.
Learn more about safe food handling for those vulnerable to food poisoning and the foods they should avoid.