Nutrition Article:

Older adults more vulnerable to foodborne illnesses

by Pam McGaffin

Older adults are more likely to get sick from that hamburger that was left out too long or the egg cooked sunny-side up.

Weaker immune systems, a decrease in stomach acid and other age-related factors put older adults at greater risk for foodborne illnesses, notes the Healthy Aging Partnership (HAP), a coalition of 40 Puget Sound-area not-for-profit and public organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of older adults.

What's more, older adults are more likely to get seriously ill or even die from bacteria and other contaminants in the food they eat, according to HAP.

The National Food and Drug Administration estimates that 2 to 3 percent of the millions of foodborne illnesses in the United States each year lead to secondary long-term illnesses, including kidney failure, arthritis and meningitis.

Fortunately, foodborne illnesses at home can be easily prevented by following four simple food-preparation steps:

  1. Clean your hands with soap and warm water frequently, particularly before and after preparing food and after using the bathroom. Also, wash cutting boards, utensils and countertops that you've used to prepare food. A sanitizing solution of one teaspoon chlorine bleach to one quart of water provides added protection.
  2. Separate raw poultry, red meat and seafood from foods that aren't going to be cooked. Always wash hands, utensils and surfaces with hot soapy water between preparing vegetables and meats to prevent cross contamination. If possible, use separate cutting boards.
  3. Cook foods long enough and to high enough temperatures to kill bacteria. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of meats, poultry and other foods. Roasts and steaks, for example, should be cooked to at least 145 degrees F, while ground beef - which can become contaminated during grinding - should be cooked to at least 160 degrees F. For more information on cooking foods and temperatures, go to www.fightbac.org.
  4. Chill (refrigerate or freeze) perishable foods and leftovers within two hours because bacteria can thrive in the danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees F. Thawing foods in the refrigerator is the safest method. You can also thaw foods covered in cold water that's changed every half hour or in the microwave. If thawing in the microwave, cook the food right away. Foods being marinated should be kept in the refrigerator. Discard any unused marinade.

Some foods are best avoided if you're 65 or older or have a health condition that makes you vulnerable to illness. They include raw fish and shellfish, hot dogs, cold cuts, soft cheeses, refrigerated smoked seafood, and raw or lightly cooked eggs.

HAP advises older adults to be aware of the symptoms of foodborne illness, which can hit 20 minutes after a meal or take several days or weeks to appear. The most common symptoms include diarrhea, cramping, fever and vomiting.

In most cases, the illnesses last a day or two and aren't life threatening, but they can be serious for older adults, especially those who may already be malnourished or have a chronic disease and weak immune system.

If you suspect a foodborne illness, call a doctor right away. If possible, wrap and label a portion of the suspected food and put it in the refrigerator. Also, call the local health department if the food was commercially produced or served to a large number of people.

For more information about foodborne illnesses, call the FDA Consumer Food Information line at 1-800-FDA-4010.

For general information about issues related to life as an older adult, call HAP's free and confidential help line at 1-888-4ELDERS (1-888-435-3377) or e-mail hap@seniorservices.org.

To learn more about HAP and its 40 partner agencies, visit the Web site at www.4elders.org.