Richard is an 88 year old male who was hospitalized post myocardial infarction (MI) for placement of a stent and management of heart failure. Other than a diagnosis of hypertension which has been under control with medications since age 70, he had been healthy and living independently with his wife in their home. Prior to the MI, he was eating a regular diet and either walking or using a stationary bike daily. However since the MI, his cardiologist has drastically restricted his physical activity, and ordered a low fat, low cholesterol, 2 gram sodium diet. His medications include 75 mg atenolol daily, 40 mg Lasix twice a day, 80 mg Lipitor daily, 8 mg warfarin daily, 75 mg Clopidogrel daily, and 80 mg low dose aspirin daily.

At 5’5” tall, normally 145#, he has gradually lost weight and is now down to 106#. Although his food intake is only fair, his cardiologist emphasized the need for a low sodium diet and daily weights to monitor for fluid shifts. His wife is overwhelmed and his daughter is nervous about how to shop and prepare for his meals.

Knowing that almost 20% of older adults are readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of discharge (1), assuring Richard receives good advice is essential. He will be returning home with his 88-year old wife, who is overwhelmed and nervous about preparing his food and with limited help from family. How should you counsel Richard?

Malnutrition Concerns

Medical nutrition therapy (MNT) recommendations for cardiovascular disease (CVD) in older adults vary based on diagnosis, age and risk of malnutrition. For frail older adults, unintended weight loss, malnutrition, sarcopenia, and frailty are genuine concerns. These conditions can lead to reduced functional ability and increased dependence, so preventing these complications is critical. Consuming nourishing food to prevent further decline is a major focus.

Health care providers mean well by ordering therapeutic diets to improve health, but in frail older adults, these diets can have a negative effect on the variety, flavor, and palatability of food. This can reduce enjoyment of eating, decrease food intake and lead to complications that could affect quality of life and longevity. It is critical to individualize nutrition interventions to assure the highest level of well-being for each person, and in many cases that means avoiding strict therapeutic diets. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Academy) Evidence Analysis Library, more liberal diets are associated with increased food and beverage intake in older adults (2).

Medical Nutrition Therapy for Cardiovascular Disease in Older Adults

A risk factor for cardiovascular disease, hypertension affects approximately 64-78.5% of older adults (3). Lowering blood pressure can help reduce risk for stroke, MI, heart failure, and renal disease. For people 60 years or older, blood pressure (BP) goals are <150 systolic and <90 diastolic BP (<140 and <90 for people with diabetes and/or CDK). All adults with hypertension should modify their lifestyles in conjunction with pharmacological treatment (4). To maintain nutritional status, older adults may need a more liberal approach to sodium restriction, especially if they are already frail (5).

Heart failure (HF) is the leading cause of hospitalization among older adults in the U.S., and more than 50% of HF patients are readmitted within 6 months of hospital discharge (6). Treatment includes medications, a reduced sodium diet, and daily physical activity (7). A 2000 mg sodium, 2000 mL fluid restriction is typically prescribed (8), however recent evidence indicates that intake of 2700-3000 mg sodium daily may decrease hospital readmissions and mortality in patients with compensated CHF (9).

Current guidelines for older with atherosclerotic heart disease recommend a focus on overall risk factors rather than specific parameters for blood lipid levels (10). It is unclear whether or not modification of blood lipids is effective to prevent CVD in older adults (11). Lipid levels can be controlled by medications while allowing an older person to enjoy food.

How Should Richard be Counseled?

In Richard’s case, dietary changes should be balanced with his condition, prognosis, threat of malnutrition and cardiac cachexia, and individual food preferences. Richard should be counselled on eating healthfully to help maintain his health and focus on enjoying his meals. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating pattern, or a Mediterranean style diet are all good eating patterns for Richard. If Richard’s food intake is poor or he is resistant to these suggestions, a more individualized eating pattern that includes his favorite foods may be needed, even if those favorites are high in sodium or fat.

The Bottom Line for Older Adults with CVD

It is important to assure person directed choice when working with older adults. Decisions should be informed and in coordination with the individual’s goals, preferences and choices. Most older adults with CVD can benefit from a diet based on the DGA which is moderate in fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars. Evidence suggests that frail older adults often need a less restrictive diet to offset the risks of unintended weight loss and malnutrition.

©2017 Becky Dorner & Associates, Inc.

Author's Bio: 

Becky Dorner, RD, LD
Widely-known as one of the nation's leading experts on nutrition and long-term care issues, Becky Dorner is an enthusiastic, dynamic, innovative leader who motivates and inspires people into action. Becky has almost 30 years’ experience as a consultant, author and speaker. She is President of Becky Dorner & Associates, Inc., which publishes and presents CEU programs and information on nutrition care for older adults; and Nutrition Consulting Services, Inc. which employs RDs and DTRs to provide services to health care facilities in Ohio (since 1983).

Becky's mission to improve care for older adults has inspired her to present more than 500 programs for national, international and state professional meetings in 5 countries and 48 states; and to publish more than 260 manuals, CEU programs and practical articles for professional journals and newsletters. Her free email magazine keeps more than 35,000 health care professionals up to date on the latest news in the field.

Becky is a 25+ year volunteer to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or A.N.D. (formerly American Dietetic Association or ADA). Becky currently serves on the A.N.D. Board of Directors and House Leadership Team as Speaker-elect/Speaker/Past Speaker of the House of Delegates (2011-2014). She has held many national positions including: Board of Directors of the National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel (2006-2012), chair of CD-HCF (now DHCC), and ADA Delegate. She has served on the ADA Research Committee, the ADA Evidence Analysis Library (Nutrition and Wound Care; Unintended Weight Loss in Older Adults), Nutrition Entrepreneurs Board of Directors, and the American Overseas Dietetic Association Leadership Team.

Honors include: ADA Award of Excellence in Business and Consultation, NE Outstanding Nutrition Entrepreneur, ADA Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year and CD-HCF Distinguished Member Award.

Curriculum vitae available at