Screening Community-Living Older Adults for Protein Energy Malnutrition and Frailty: Update and Next Steps

J.T. Dwyer, J.J. Gahche, M. Weiler, M.B. Arensberg

J Community Health. 2019 Sep 30. doi: 10.1007/s10900-019-00739-1. [Epub ahead of print]

Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM)/undernutrition and frailty are prevalent, overlapping conditions impacting on functional and health outcomes of older adults, but are frequently unidentified and untreated in community settings in the United States. Using the World Health Organization criteria for effective screening programs, we reviewed validity, reliability, and feasibility of data-driven screening tools for identifying PEM and frailty risk among community-dwelling older adults.

The SCREEN II is recommended for PEM screening and the FRAIL scale is recommended as the most promising frailty screening tool, based on test characteristics, cost, and ease of use, but more research on both tools is needed, particularly on predictive validity of favorable outcomes after nutritional/physical activity interventions. The Malnutrition Screening Tool (MST) has been recommended by one expert group as a screening tool for all adults, regardless of age/care setting. However, it has not been tested in US community settings, likely yields large numbers of false positives (particularly in community settings), and its predictive validity of favorable outcomes after nutritional interventions is unknown. Community subgroups at highest priority for screening are those at increased risk due to prior illness, certain demographics and/or domiciliary characteristics, and those with BMI < 20 kg/m2 or < 22 if > 70 years or recent unintentional weight loss > 10% (who are likely already malnourished). 

Comment:  Community-based health professionals can better support healthy aging by increasing their awareness/use of PEM and frailty screening tools, prioritizing high-risk populations for systematic screening, following screening with more definitive diagnoses and appropriate interventions, and re-evaluating and revising screening protocols and measures as more data become available.