THE STATISTICS on the elderly are stagering. Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), who has a penchant for numbers, can rattle off a few of them -- 80 percent of the people who died from malnutrition in 1979 were over 65 years old; 40 percent of those over 65 are at or near the poverty line, which means they are spending about 40 percent of their income on food.

At a speech after his 81st birthday, the chairman of the House Select Committee on aging said, "I'm not old myself, but I've read up on the subject."

As honorary chairman of the current White House Conference on Aging, Pepper is just one of hundreds who have spent the last four days discussing the fastest-growing segment of the American population. This is the third such conference to help establish public policy concerning the elderly: The first, in 1961, was responsible for Medicare; the second, in 1971, reinforced stricter laws against age discrimination. If past action sets precedence, this conference will affect legislation in the decade to come.

Specific nutritional concerns, dwarfed by the grand scheme of the conference, fall under the umbrella of the "committee for promotion and maintenance of wellness." Nevertheless, at a recent forum on aging, specialists noted that the nutrition needs of the elderly have been largely ignored.

Dr. Hamish Munro, director of the brand new USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, hopes the White House conference results in "increased support and interest in food consumption and nutritional habits" of older people. He hopes participants at the conference find the "most desirable way to integrate" all aspects of health (exercise, etc.) to discover "what is the best way to get old."

At the Tufts center, which won't even be completed until next year, researchers will study nutrition as it affects the aging process (some of this process occurs all through life). This is virtually the first time that special dietary needs of older people have been recognized and acknowledged.

"We do not know how much nutrition influences the course and severity of the progressive changes in bodily functions" as people age, Dr. Munro said at a seminar on aging sponsored by the National Nutrition Consortium.

Osteoporosis is one example of diet-related disorders associated with aging. Older people with soft, porous bones commonly are debilitated by a collapsed spine or broken hip caused by perhaps trivial accidents. It is yet to be discovered what roles calcium, protein and vitamin D play in osteoporosis. Bone tissue depletion is just one example of how nutrition can affect aging. Hamish says that active tissue of all kinds (muscle, etc.) decreases as a person grows older.

Even the most basic nutrient requirements are a mystery. Unfortunately, the dietary allowances recommended for the elderly by the National Academy of Sciences are only extrapolated from the experiments conducted on college-age students. But, as with infants, an older metabolism requires different nutrition -- perhaps more zinc, fewer calories and so on.

"The recommended allowances only have one age category for older adults," Hamish pointed out -- for people over 50 years old. This "covers a period of continuous bodily change." One specialist says that the people who make up the elderly population probably differ more from each other than the members of any other groups.

The allowances ignore the needs of people with chronic ailments. The requirements of an active 68-year-old woman with diabetes are, obviously, far different from those of an 89-year-old man with colon disease. Yet the RDAs don't allow for differences. "It's just a statement of the lack of knowledge," said Munro.

When people age, they don't exercise as much. They don't eat as much. They may not get enough nutrients. Munro said "the gap" in The Ageless Problems of Nutrition The Elderly, It Seems, Have Been Ignored By Sarah Fritschner Washignton Post Staff Writer TT HE STATISTICS on the elderly are staggering. Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), who has a T penchant for numbers, can rattle off a few of them -- 80 percent of the people who died from malnutrition in 1979 were over 65 years old; 40 percent of those over 65 are at or near the poverty line, which means they are spending about 40 percent of their income on food.

At a speech after his 81st birthday, the chairman of the House Select Committee on aging said, "I'm not old myself, but I've read up on the subject."

As honorary chairman of the current White House Conference on Aging, Pepper is just one of hundreds who have spent the last four days discussing the fastest-growing segment of the American population. This is the third such conference to help establish public policy concerning the elderly: The first, in 1961, was responsible for Medicare; the second, in 1971, reinforced stricter laws against age discrimination. If past action sets precedence, this conference will affect legislation in the decade to come.

Specific nutritional concerns, dwarfed by the grand scheme of the conference, fall under the umbrella of the "committee for promotion and maintenance of wellness." Nevertheless, at a recent forum on aging, specialists noted that the nutrition needs of the elderly have been largely ignored.

Dr. Hamish Munro, director of the brand new USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, hopes the White House conference results in "increased support and interest in food consumption and nutritional habits" of older people. He hopes participants at the conference find the "most desirable way to integrate" all aspects of health (exercise, etc.) to discover "what is the best way to get old."

At the Tufts center, which won't even be completed until next year, researchers will study nutrition as it affects the aging process (some of this process occurs all through life). This is virtually the first time that special dietary needs of older people have been recognized and acknowledged.

"We do not know how much nutrition influences the course and severity of the progressive changes in bodily functions" as people age, Dr. Munro said at a seminar on aging sponsored by the National Nutrition Consortium.

Osteoporosis is one example of diet-related disorders associated with aging. Older people with soft, porous bones commonly are debilitated by a collapsed spine or broken hip caused by perhaps trivial accidents. It is yet to be discovered what roles calcium, protein and vitamin D play in osteoporosis. Bone tissue depletion is just one example of how nutrition can affect aging. Hamish says that active tissue of all kinds (muscle, etc.) decreases as a person grows older.

Even the most basic nutrient requirements are a mystery. Unfortunately, the dietary allowances recommended for the elderly by the National Academy of Sciences are only extrapolated from the experiments conducted on college-age students. But, as with infants, an older metabolism requires different nutrition -- perhaps more zinc, fewer calories and so on.

"The recommended allowances only have one age category for older adults," Hamish pointed out -- for people over 50 years old. This "covers a period of continuous bodily change." One specialist says that the people who make up the elderly population probably differ more from each other than the members of any other groups.

The allowances ignore the needs of people with chronic ailments. The requirements of an active 68-year-old woman with diabetes are, obviously, far different from those of an 89-year-old man with colon disease. Yet the RDAs don't allow for differences. "It's just a statement of the lack of knowledge," said Munro.

When people age, they don't exercise as much. They don't eat as much. They may not get enough nutrients. Munro said "the gap" in current knowledge is "whether the reduced nutrient intakes of old people bring them below the levels of adequacy for proper tissue function." In short, no one yet knows when and why older people are malnourished because it is unclear what their specific needs are.

The picture becomes further complicated by problems with absorption -- the reduction of stomach acid with age, for instance, can interfere with digestion. Alcoholism inhibits good nutrition. Even drugs -- prescribed to combat afflictions of age -- interject problems.

And when the scientific problems are solved, physical, social and psychological problems remain to exacerbate the potential nutritional deficiencies.

Inactivity and loneliness afflict the elderly. Grief, poor teeth, weakness (from arthritis), depression and poverty can undermine good eating habits. Such a combination of physical and emotional problems is peculiar to the older population.

White House Conferences in the past have dealt with some facets of the poor nutritional status of the elderly. For example, they have paved the way for the national congregate feeding programs. Hot lunches served in meal sites across the country offer participants one third of their recommended daily allowances. The sites provide not only food, but are designed to keep the elderly "active, independent and away from nursing homes," said Bud Stolker, of the Administration on Aging -- a federal agency generated from talks at the first White House Conference.

But many facets remain to be dealt with. Perhaps conferees at today's scheduled plenary session will address some of them in their final recommendations. Perhaps the combined effort of scientists and policymakers will reduce the $40 billion plus that's spent on health care and, as demanded by Rep. Pepper, "better the quality and character" of the lives of the elderly. current knowledge is "whether the reduced nutrient intakes of old people bring them below the levels of adequacy for proper tissue function." In short, no one yet knows when and why older people are malnourished because it is unclear what their specific needs are.

The picture becomes further complicated by problems with absorption -- the reduction of stomach acid with age, for instance, can interfere with digestion. Alcoholism inhibits good nutrition. Even drugs -- prescribed to combat afflictions of age -- interject problems.

And when the scientific problems are solved, physical, social and psychological problems remain to exacerbate the potential nutritional deficiencies.

Inactivity and loneliness afflict the elderly. Grief, poor teeth, weakness (from arthritis), depression and poverty can undermine good eating habits. Such a combination of physical and emotional problems is peculiar to the older population.

White House Conferences in the past have dealt with some facets of the poor nutritional status of the elderly. For example, they have paved the way for the national congregate feeding programs. Hot lunches served in meal sites across the country offer participants one third of their recommended daily allowances. The sites provide not only food, but are designed to keep the elderly "active, independent and away from nursing homes," said Bud Stolker, of the Administration on Aging -- a federal agency generated from talks at the first White House Conference.

But many facets remain to be dealt with. Perhaps conferees at today's scheduled plenary session will address some of them in their final recommendations. Perhaps the combined effort of scientists and policymakers will reduce the $40 billion plus that's spent on health care and, as demanded by Rep. Pepper, "better the quality and character" of the lives of the elderly.