At risk: seniors and food safety

Rachel Ann McDonald suspected there might be something wrong with the turkey casserole sitting before her. But she couldn’t very well decline it and offend her hosts.

So, letting politeness usurp her better judgment, she stoically ate her dinner. At two in the morning, after throwing up for the eleventh time, she vowed never to make that mistake again.

McDonald had been looking forward to dining with her new friends at their home in Toronto. Arriving early, she chatted with her hosts in the kitchen. That’s when she became alarmed by her hosts’ lack of attention to kitchen hygiene, their general disregard for handwashing and that the food had been left sitting out for quite a while before being served.

“I started to get worried at the thought of eating a meal cooked by someone who didn’t think, as I did, that cleanliness was next to godliness,” explains McDonald. Later that night, her worst fears were realized. Food poisoning.

More dangers with age
McDonald is just one of the estimated two million Canadia (28 per cent of whom are 50-plus) who suffer from food poisoning each year.

And while the acute symptoms of food poisoning can subside within 24 hours-an agonizing 24 hours as McDonald can readily attest to-it can pose more serious problems for the older population.

Paul Sockett, chief of Health Canada’s Division of Enteric Foodborne and Waterborne Disease, explains that as we age, food poisoning becomes a more dangerous threat.

“The efficiency of our immune systems begins to decline, usually around age 45,” Sockett says.

Along with this decline is the body’s inability to fight off bacterial infection. Beyond 65, we become increasingly susceptible to foodborne illnesses.

As well as age, chronic illness, more common among older people, also hampers our ability to fight food-poisoning bacteria. People with diabetes, cancer or AIDS and those taking certain medications all have “compromised immune systems”-leaving them more vulnerable to foodborne bacteria.

Next page: Stomach acid helps

Stomach acid helps
Adding to the risk is the natural decline of our stomach’s acidity, which occurs in older people.

“The stomach’s acidity is one of the main barriers that neutralizes foodborne bacteria before it gets into the digestive system. If the acidity decreases, then more of those bacteria are likely to get through the stomach and into the intestine,” says Sockett.

Though over 50, McDonald’s overall good health probably prevented her from developing a long-term sickness associated with food poisoning.

However, in cases where the infection has spread from the stomach into the body and bloodstream, serious chronic illness can result.

“Food poisoning is an area we’re learning more about all the time,” says Sockett. “We’ve seen severe salmonella infections lead to arthritis-like symptoms. Sometimes, these last only a few weeks. Sometimes, they last much longer.”

Domino damage effect
E. coli O157:H7 infection can also be significantly more dangerous to older people because it can lead to kidney damage, creating a possible domino effect on other organs.

“This was one of the issues the doctors had to deal with among the elderly patients who were victims in the Walkerton (Ont.) water crisis,” says Sockett, referring to the May 2000 incident where E. coli-tainted water left seven people dead and 2,000 sick, many of them seniors.

But, despite these hazardous risks, Sockett stresses that we don’t necessarily need to run to emergency the minute we suspect foodborne illness. Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fever, cramping and headaches are all symptoms of typical food poisoning.

“The older you are, the sooner you should seek medical attention if you experience severe and frequent vomiting or diarrhea, and if these last beyond a few hours or if there is blood or mucus in the stools, they should seek medical attention,” he says.

Next page: Rehydration important

Rehydration important
If food poisoning is diagnosed, the treatment is to rehydrate the patient with fluids or, in cases of extreme dehydration, with an intravenous drip to replenish electorlytes. But, in rare instances where the infection does spread, a course of antibiotics will be administered.

McDonald’s experience made her change her ways.

“I stopped going to my friends’ house for supper. And I didn’t go out to a restaurant for a long time,” she says. It also woke her up to the need to be aware at all times of the possibility of food contamination.

Prevention techniques
Here are some ways those over 50 can lessen their risk of food poisoning.

  • Maintain a strong immune system. This is the best defence 50-plus people have against food poisoning. Alcohol, smoking, a lack of exercise, poor nutrition, stress and self-imposed isolation are all factors which can have a detrimental effect on our immune system.

  • Don’t buy food at the reduced-priced racks at your supermarket. It may be tempting but, because it’s impossible to tell the age of the food or whether bacteria has made its way into broken packaging or dented cans, it’s better not to take the risk.

  • Store leftovers in single-serving portions. Some people living alone find using hotpots a convenient way of dining. When a large container of food is cooked and then put in the fridge for storage, the centre of the food stays warm longer, providing a good breeding ground for bacteria. Your safest option is to dish out only what you’ll be eating that day and separate the rest of the hotpot’s contents into portion-sized containers. Freeze these and defrost them only as needed.
  • Buffets are very popular with 50-plus people, especially when travelling. However, because food is left sitting out, there’s potential for spoilage. You may not know how long the food has been unrefrigerated or whether yesterday’s leftovers were dumped in with today’s offerings.