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Released: May 16, 2002

Also see: Summer 2002 Food Safety news package

Elderly Among Those Most Susceptible to Foodborne Illness

MANHATTAN, Kan. Ė Itís no secret: the baby-boom generation has grown up.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported last year that more than 9 million Americans were age 80 or older. The government agency expects the number to keep rising to as much as 27 million Ė or about 1 in 12 Ė by the year 2040.

And those are numbers that get Karen Pennerís attention.

Young Adults Less Safety Conscious

MANHATTAN, Kan. Ė Young adults, some who may be living away from their parents for the first time, are more likely to make mistakes preparing food.

But that group also is likely to be more resistant to foodborne pathogens, said Karen Penner, a food safety specialist at Kansas State University.

"In general, theyíre healthy, so even if those people get some kind of infection, their immune systems may help them fight it off," Penner said.

"We really donít have any evidence that this group is at higher risk to foodborne illness. [But] thatís a group thatís becoming independent; they eat, but they donít know a lot about food preparation or food handling. That is probably a group that is not very careful about putting leftovers away, or making sure food is prepared correctly."

In past generations, kids often learned safe cooking techniques at home, but more recently, youth are eating more "convenient" foods: pizza, burritos or other food that can be prepared quickly, possibly in the microwave.

When they do cook for themselves, however, young adults may not understand that meat must be cooked to 160 degrees F to be considered safe to eat, or that they should wash their hands thoroughly before handling food, for example.

Food safety information is available on-line from Kansas State University at, or interested persons may get more information at their local Extension office.

Over the next 20 years, "we are likely to see more of those people in that group succumbing to foodborne illness," said Penner, a food safety specialist at Kansas State University.

The elderly are among those most susceptible to being sickened by bacteria in food. People with chronic diseases; those who are physically impaired; or people taking medications Ė conditions often seen in the elderly Ė have weakened immune systems unable to fight off such dangerous foodborne pathogens as Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, listeria or many others.

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food, so as people age, handling and preparing the food they eat becomes increasingly important.

"Many times, elderly people living alone donít always eat well [because] itís hard to prepare food for one person, or they donít want to bother preparing food," Penner said. "Some receive home-delivered meals at noon, and those are great if theyíre consumed right away. But if they let the meal sit on the counter to eat later, thatís not good."

An outbreak of a foodborne illness Ė such as salmonellosis Ė in a nursing home, she adds, "is more likely to cause death," than one at home with young or middle-aged adults.

Food scientists suggest moderate, regular exercise; good nutrition and personal hygiene; and practicing proper food handling to help elderly people avoid foodborne and many other illnesses.

Others considered most susceptible to foodborne illness are infants; anybody whose bodies are immuno-compromised due to diseases such as AIDS and diabetes; and those undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

For more information on food safety, interested persons may contact their local Extension office, or visit the K-State Research and Extension website,


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Pat Melgares, News Coordinator
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Karen Penner is at 785-532-1672