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Karen Charlton

Karen Charlton 130 x 180I was born in the United Kingdom. When I was 10 weeks old, my parents emigrated to South Africa. However, I spent most of my childhood years in Zambia and Botswana, where I saw firsthand the impact of harsh environmental conditions on food security during a number of prolonged drought years.

My interest in nutrition began whilst I was completing a BSc degree in zoology at the University of Cape Town (1986), which led me to pursue postgraduate studies in the UK where I qualified as a dietitian in 1990. I soon realised that my passion lay in public health rather than in curative care, and after a brief stint as a clinical dietitian, I returned to South Africa to take up a research position back at my alma mater University of Cape Town. In my early career, I was particularly interested in the role of diet and nutrition on functioning in older adults from disadvantaged communities who had been exposed to poor dietary intakes and hardship over a lifetime of inequity, but who, against such odds, had survived. Over a decade or so, I contributed much-needed information on nutrition and ageing in the Southern African region.

In the early 2000s, I undertook work under the auspices of the minimal data-set project of the World Health Organization to develop and validate a nutrition screening instrument for use specifically in older Africans. More recently, I have been involved in an international initiative to revise the mini nutritional assessment instrument, the dietary assessment tool recommended for use in older adults by the European Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. I provided one of the few original datasets to the project from older people in the community, and the only one from the African continent. This has resulted in widespread validation of the screening instrument across various countries and settings, and has also contributed to further refinement of a shortened version.

I continue to advocate for early nutrition screening in older people in the community, as well as in hospital and residential care. I am currently working with general practitioners to incorporate routine nutrition screening and early intervention into clinical practice. I have served on the International Union of Nutritional Sciences committee on nutrition and ageing (1993-2000) and its task force on diet, nutrition and long-term health (2000 – 2004; 2005-2008).

Between 1999 and 2002, I headed the division of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Cape Town, which offered the country’s only postgraduate honours programme at the time that led to state registration as a dietitian. I served on two national working groups (obesity guidelines; food-based dietary guidelines), the outcomes of which informed clinical practice and nutrition policy.

I completed my doctoral degree (2006) on strategies to lower blood pressure at a population level in South Africa. I demonstrated that improvement of the cation content (lowered Na and increased K, Mg, Ca) of commonly consumed foods lowered blood pressure by a clinically significant magnitude. The level of reduction would result in 20 per cent fewer deaths attributed to high blood pressure, thus preventing >9,000 deaths a year in the country. This work resulted in the publication of a Medical Research Council policy brief and has encouraged industry-academia-government action on lowering salt intake in the food supply.

In late 2006, I relocated to Australia from South Africa. My current interests include iodine deficiency, as well as dietary interventions to improve physical and cognitive functioning in older adults. I am actively involved in the Nutrition Society of Australia and continue to take a keen interest in nutrition research in African countries, through supervision of postgraduate research students.

I am also a busy mother of three young children.