Background: Evidence for the effectiveness of nutritional supplements containing protein and energy, often prescribed for older people, is limited. Malnutrition is more common in this age group and deterioration of nutritional status can occur during illness. It is important to establish whether supplementing the diet is an effective way of improving outcomes for older people at risk from malnutrition.
Objectives: This review examined trials for improvement in nutritional status and clinical outcomes when extra protein and energy were provided, usually as commercial 'sip-feeds'.
Search strategy: We searched The Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, EMBASE, Healthstar, CINAHL, BIOSIS, CAB abstracts. We also hand searched nutrition journals and reference lists and contacted 'sip-feed' manufacturers.
Selection criteria: Randomised and quasi-randomised controlled trials of oral protein and energy supplementation in older people, with the exception of groups recovering from cancer treatment or in critical care.
Data collection and analysis: Two reviewers independently assessed trials prior to inclusion and independently extracted data and assessed trial quality. Authors of trials were contacted for further information as necessary.
Main results: Sixty-two trials with 10,187 randomised participants have been included in the review. Maximum duration of intervention was 18 months. Most included trials had poor study quality. The pooled weighted mean difference (WMD) for percentage weight change showed a benefit of supplementation of 2.2% (95% confidence interval (CI) 1.8 to 2.5) from 42 trials. There was no significant reduction in mortality in the supplemented compared with control groups (relative risk (RR) 0.92, CI 0.81 to 1.04) from 42 trials. Mortality results were statistically significant when limited to trials in which participants (N = 2461) were defined as undernourished (RR 0.79, 95% CI 0.64 to 0.97).The risk of complications was reduced in 24 trials (RR 0.86, 95% CI 0.75 to 0.99). Few trials were able to suggest any functional benefit from supplementation. The WMD for length of stay from 12 trials also showed no statistically significant effect (-0.8 days, 95% CI -2.8 to 1.3). Adverse effects included nausea or diarrhoea.
Authors' conclusions: Supplementation produces a small but consistent weight gain in older people. Mortality may be reduced in older people who are undernourished. There may also be a beneficial effect on complications which needs to be confirmed. However, this updated review found no evidence of improvement in functional benefit or reduction in length of hospital stay with supplements. Additional data from large-scale multi-centre trials are still required.