Chronic malnutrition is persistent lack of access to necessary vitamins and minerals in early childhood, leading to health problems later in life even if the patient later receives adequate nutrition. Between the ages of eight and 20 months, children are especially vulnerable and can develop chronic malnutrition if their dietary needs are not met. Globally, a number of organizations work on hunger and malnutrition issues in children, developing intervention programs to get nutrition to developing children.
People who are malnourished are not necessarily at risk of starving to death. In the case of individuals with chronic malnutrition, they tend to develop more slowly and may remain physically small, even as adults. In addition, they can exhibit tell-tale signs of poor nutrition, such as losing their hair, having flaky or brittle fingernails, and being physically weak. In addition, chronic malnutrition exposes people to the risk of cognitive disabilities caused by not getting enough to eat while their brains are growing.
Nutrition is not simply about the quantity of food people consume, but also the quality. People with chronic malnutrition are sometimes overweight as a result of their diets, but they are still not receiving the balance of vitamins and nutrients they need to survive. A significant concern with developing children is that as they are weaned from breastmilk, a food with a rich assortment of vitamins and minerals, they may develop malnutrition while eating soft and solid foods.
Combating chronic malnutrition involves a number of approaches including fortifying foods, providing nutritional education in poor communities, and offering grants of food aid and other assistance. Communities with a history of malnutrition problems may be offered additional interventions with the goal of catching and treating malnutrition as early as possible. This can include educating doctors and nurses at community health clinics so they know how to handle malnourished patients.
Adults can also experience extended periods of malnutrition, but it is not as dangerous as it is in developing children. Fully developed adults are not at risk of developmental delays caused by malnutrition, although not having access to a balanced diet can certainly cause quality of life issues including fatigue and cognitive deficits. Malnutrition in pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers is a particular cause for concern, as it can have a negative impact on the developing child. Children who were malnourished in utero or while breastfeeding may never fully recover, even with nutritional intervention.