Blog Post

Food allergies a concern for seniors

Food allergies are an increasing health concern in the older adult population. Though we often think of allergies as something a person is born with, the reality is that food allergies can develop at any time in one’s life. Currently, a majority of medical research is aimed at pediatric patients. However, mounting evidence suggests that older adults may be at increased risk of food allergies compared to the general population.

According to a 2011 study in Clinical and Translational Allergy, the prevalence of food allergies among the elderly is 5-10%. Many researchers suspect this number is grossly underestimated due to low levels of diagnosis in the senior population. For instance, another 2011 study in Gerontology found that 25% of nursing home patients tested positive for a food allergy when given a skin test.

There are a few reasons that food allergies in seniors might go undiagnosed. For reasons not yet understood, older adults are less likely to experience severe allergy symptoms, including anaphylaxis, which requires immediate medical attention. In addition, a study by the Mayo Clinic indicates that seniors and their caregivers may attribute mild allergy symptoms to side effects from medications or dismiss them as symptoms of other chronic conditions.

The foods most commonly associated with food allergies in older adults are fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, peanuts and seafood. The most common symptoms of food allergies include hives or itchy skin, tingling in the mouth, swelling and in ammation, trouble breathing and gastrointestinal distress.

Older adults who suspect a food allergy should speak to their doctor about conducting an allergy test. If a doctor confirms a food allergy, there are several important steps seniors should take in their daily lives:

  • Read all prepackaged food labels carefully. Be sure to recheck labels of “safe” foods periodically, as ingredients may change. Avoid packaged foods with unclear ingredient listings.
  • Ask questions about ingredients and food preparation when dining out. Restaurant staff should be able to assist with choosing safe menu options.
  • Take care when preparing food at home. Avoid cross contamination with allergens by cleaning food preparation areas, utensils and appliances thoroughly. Research alternative ingredients if preparing a recipe that calls for a known allergen.
  • If you are going to a social function where food will be served, bring a safe dish to eat.

It’s important for seniors not to simply self-diagnose a food allergy and instead speak to a medical professional if they suspect a problem with certain foods. Altering your diet without seeking medical advice could lead to additional problems, including malnutrition and vitamin deficiency. If you have been diagnosed with an allergy and are having trouble avoiding problem foods, speak to a dietician who can help you plan a balanced diet.