Allergens and Intolerances in Seniors: Empowering Older People to Take Action

by Sophie Murray, Head of Nutrition and Hydration and Sunrise UK  |  April 17, 2018

In 2013, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) released a new publication which listed 14 different allergens that we should we wary of. These included cereals, nuts, shellfish, and milk. The list was a highly important document which enhanced public knowledge of different allergens and intolerances, and has ensured people eat safely from a more informed standpoint.

But I believe there is more we must do to raise awareness of allergens, so that older people can live the healthiest, most comfortable lives possible. While the FSA correctly identified 14 key allergens, there are some that were not included, but which older people should still be aware of. With the frequency of allergens rising all the time, we are at a critical juncture, and must act to empower people to stay safe when eating.

We need to encourage older people in our care to express if they think they have an intolerances, and raise this with a doctor or relevant health professional such as the Dietician. A food diary can help link symptoms with foods eaten. It is equally important that team members themselves are able to identify symptoms in residents. Some people are intolerant or allergic to foods such as strawberries and tomatoes, which are not included in the FSA’s list. By having their own awareness of allergens and symptoms, people can ensure all possible risks are picked up, so that the right help and support can be sought.

Symptoms to look out for include skin rashes, stomach pain, and diarrhoea. Knowing this means older people can act fast, not needing to wait for a GP to confirm an allergy which might be hard to test for or not be picked up if it is an intolerance, which can be caused by a damaged or compromised gut. With the rise of processed food and diets becoming increasingly unbalanced, the gut is facing greater threats than ever before. Even a symptom like a skin rash may be connected to the health of the gut. Much of the immune system is in the gut too so it is highly responsive to anything it perceives as a threat to the immune system

My own personal encounter with these issues came when my daughter had excema. While the immediate and most obvious treatment of this skin condition would be moisturising creams and ointments, the underlying causes often stem from the gut, which was overcome through probiotics and digestive enzymes. While only one personal example, this reflects a wider trend.

With today’s young people experiencing higher levels of allergens and intolerances than previous generations, we have the opportunity to empower each and every individual to act upon their symptoms. Rather than being a passive recipient of information from the doctor when some are told nothing can be done, enhanced education around allergens enables people to take control of their health, and enjoy greater empowerment and autonomy. We should investigate any gut related symptoms that persist. Lifestyle and dietary changes can often make a difference to quality of life.

So that older people can help themselves as well as others, we must move beyond the FSA’s regulations, and expand our understanding of allergens. Aided by compassionate and knowledgeable care home team members, this provides a more effective path ahead.