Older Adults and Food Poisoning

Contributors: Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN
old lady eating


According to past consumer survey data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, older adults appear to be more consistent in practicing safe food handling than those younger than 60 years. However, adults aged 65 and older are more vulnerable to food poisoning and should take extra care to safely handle food.

The number of older adults living in America is expected to double to an estimated 73 million by 2030, and a greater number of these older Americans may choose to stay in their own homes as they age, rather than long-term care facilities. For older adults who continue to live at home and prepare a majority of their own meals and snacks, it is important to keep food safety in mind and ask for assistance when needed. Once contracted, the symptoms of foodborne illness, another name for food poisoning, can become serious enough to require hospitalization.

Why Are Older Adults More Vulnerable?

As adults age, certain factors can weaken the immune systems, making it harder to fight off bacteria and serious illness. Older adults may produce less stomach acid, which helps to control bacteria, and weakened kidneys may struggle to filter bacteria from the blood. Chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer or cardiovascular disease, and some medications, may also affect the immune system. In addition, poor eyesight and sense of smell may keep some individuals from noticing food spills and signs of spoilage.

Tips for Older Adults

The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of food poisoning. Practice the four steps of safety - clean, separate, cook and chill - and keep these extra tips in mind:

  • If you normally wear glasses to help you see, also wear them when handling food.
  • Using one light source, rather than multiple, may be more likely to cause a glare. Consider turning up the lights.
  • Use a marker to label perishable food and leftovers with a use-by date that’s easy to read – don't rely on memory. In general, leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or frozen for later use.
  • Refrigerate leftovers right away and reheat them to 165°F before eating.
  • Cook simple, easy-to-make dishes to save energy. Pre-chopped and frozen vegetables are healthful options that can help reduce your prep work.
  • 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.
  • Check the shelf life of leftovers and foods.
  • Family and friends can be a great support system and resource. Ask them for help with kitchen tasks when you're low on energy.

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