September is Food Safety Awareness Month, and although the country’s food supply is very safe, older adults are often at a greater risk for foodborne infection and illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 128,000 Americans end up in the hospital as the result of foodborne sickness each year, but taking the appropriate steps to ensure food safety can reduce this figure, especially among the senior living population.
Seniors are at a greater risk for food-related illnesses for a variety of reasons, but experts say the biggest culprit is the fact that body systems and organs tend to undergo changes as a person gets older. Specifically, the stomach and intestinal tract may hold on to food longer, and the kidneys and liver might not be able to process toxins as quickly or effectively as younger adults, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Chronic conditions and medications may also make older adults more susceptible to illness.
“Most older people take one or more medications for one or more chronic conditions, and the side effects of some medications or the chronic disease itself can weaken the immune system,” dietician Debby Krzesni told the Times-Standard. “Then there’s the slowing down of our immune system and other organs. We can get food poisoning and bounce back in a day or two as a 30-year-old, but we might be in bed for a week at 65 or hospitalized at 80.”
While seniors may have an elevated risk of contracting foodborne illnesses, if they take the appropriate safety precautions they can greatly lower their chances. The Food and Drug Administration points to several habits in particular that are essential. Washing hands and surfaces often, avoiding cross-contamination of food, cooking to safe temperatures and proper refrigeration are all cornerstones of food safety.