According to the Centers for Disease control and prevention, roughly 48 million people get food poisoning every year in the U.S. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne illness. Many of these people have weakened immune systems, which is why people age 65 and older make up the largest portion of these cases.
Older adults also produce less stomach acid, which normally controls bacteria and other pathogens, and digestion slows down so food stays in the system longer. Plus, as we age, our kidneys get weaker so they are less effective at filtering bacteria from the blood. And many seniors have been diagnosed with chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, or cardiovascular disease, and are taking medication that can also weaken the immune system.
Despite these vulnerabilities, seniors who are 65 and over are less likely to consistently practice safe food handling. In the home, seniors may not always notice spills or signs of spoilage due to poor eyesight and a diminished sense of smell. Also, seniors are more likely to keep food past their expiration date because they consider throwing food away to be wasteful.
Food poisoning, or foodborne illness, occurs when a pathogen hitches a ride into your digestive system on the food that you eat. Those pathogens are usually bacteria, viruses, or parasites. In some rare cases, it may also include actual poison, such as from eating a toxic mushroom.
Food poisoning has several symptoms to watch for. Primarily, these include diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting. It’s also common for people with food poisoning to become dehydrated from losing so many fluids.
Fortunately, food poisoning is also considered highly preventable. For older adults who prepare most of their own meals and snacks, food safety should be a high priority, even if that means asking for assistance from family, neighbors, and friends.
The most effective way to keep these pathogens out of your food is to cook everything you eat until it’s hot enough to kill any living organisms. Use a food thermometer, instead of guessing, to make sure your food is safe. You can easily find information on safe temperatures for specific types of food online, including on this chart.
That said, you don’t want to lose all the health benefits of eating fresh vegetables and fruit, which include a lot of nutrients and vitamins. However, it’s very important to wash them under running water, even fruit with peels or rinds that you don’t eat.
To avoid cross contamination, you should also keep both your hands and prep surfaces clean and sterile. That includes cutting boards, dishes, knives, utensils, and countertops, between prepping raw meat and other food that won’t be cooked.
For example, if you’re preparing dinner that includes meat and a salad, clean your prep surface between prepping the meat and making the salad. Otherwise, you may transfer pathogens from the raw meat to the salad. Another example would be if you’re grilling meat and you use a plate to carry the raw meat out to the grill. Never use the same plate to bring it back to the kitchen after it’s done cooking unless you’ve washed it thoroughly.
Another natural part of aging is that our appetite gets smaller, and that means there are often leftovers. Whether it’s food you prepared at home, or brought home from a restaurant, it’s very important to get it into the refrigerator or freezer quickly because the cold temperature slows down the growth of pathogens. However, it doesn’t stop the process completely, so you can’t leave them in the refrigerator too long. This chart will tell you how long it’s safe to keep food in the refrigerator.
If you do get food poisoning, staying hydrated is very important. Drink as much water as you can tolerate, as well as decaffeinated fluids or a rehydration drink like Pedialyte. In most cases, you’ll start to feel better in three or four days. However, if you notice more severe symptoms like blood in your stool, unbearable pain, or excessive dehydration, see your doctor. Also, if you know you have a weakened immune system, you should make an appointment with your physician as soon as possible.