Why Do the Elderly Lose Their Appetite as They Age?
Aging brings many physiological and lifestyle changes that make people feel less hungry. Yet sometimes the culprit is a serious problem requiring treatment. If you notice changes in your loved one’s eating habits, unexplained weight loss or weight gain, or general malaise, the first step is to consult their doctor.
We asked registered dietitian Heather Schwartz to share her advice if your aging parent or partner has lost interest in eating.
3 Common Reasons Seniors Eat Less
For much of our lives, food is wonderfully enticing. But there are several typical, aging-related reasons why the elderly stop eating like they used to. “I remind my clients often that a loss of appetite and thirst is a normal part of aging and doesn’t always mean something is wrong,” says Schwartz, who counsels patients at Stanford Hospital and Clinics in Palo Alto, Calif. Typical reasons include:
- A lower metabolic rate and less physical activity mean seniors need fewer calories.
- Changes to the sense of smell and taste can make food less tasty. We lose taste buds as we get older.
- Dental problems or gastrointestinal changes, such as lactose intolerance, that can accompany aging make eating uncomfortable.
Health Conditions That Cause a Loss of Appetite
Sometimes lack of interest in food is not an effect of aging. Common health problems that can decrease hunger are:
- Depression or loneliness
- Dementia symptoms [link to dementia article]
- Side effects from medications
- Less energy to cook, possibly due to sleep problems
Less common but serious underlying causes of a lack of appetite are:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Head and neck cancers
- Mouth and throat infections
- Periodontal disease
- Salivary gland dysfunction
- Thyroid disorders
Steps to Stimulate Appetite in an Aging Parent or Partner
Whether your loved one’s lack of appetite is because of typical aging or a health problem – which should be treated by a health professional — there are a few practical things you can do to help them get enough nutrition.
Counter medication side effects.
One side effect of medications is dry mouth, which means the salivary glands aren’t producing enough saliva. “Chewing sugarless gum, brushing often or using an oral rinse before meals can improve taste sensation, and ultimately nutrient intake,” Schwartz says.
Some medications, meanwhile, make foods taste metallic. If your loved one says their meat is tasing “off” or metallic, switch to other protein sources such as dairy or beans. If water doesn’t taste right to them, add herbs or sliced fruits or vegetables such as lemon or cucumber.
Encourage social meals.
The thought of eating alone can be unappealing for people of all ages. For seniors, mobility issues, death of a spouse, and lack of transportation means they’re less likely to share meals with others. Senior centers, temples or churches, and community centers may have weekly dinners and other mealtime events for seniors, says Schwartz. Encourage meal “dates” with friends, family, or caregivers.
Increase nutrient density, not portion size.
Huge helpings can be intimidating. Instead, focus on providing calorie-rich options. “I ask caregivers not to increase the volume of food they serve to seniors with low appetites,” Schwartz says. “Rather, increase the nutrient density of the foods they serve.” Avocados, olive oil, and peanut butter are examples of nutrient-dense foods packed with “healthy fats.”
Set a regular eating schedule.
“Our bodies tend to thrive off regularity, as do our hunger and thirst signals, so when we stray from our usual patterns, so does our appetite,” Schwartz says. If your loved one isn’t used to a mealtime routine, start slowly by introducing a small beverage and/or snack during a normal mealtime. This can help stimulate the body’s hunger signals.
Consider an appetite stimulant.
Some seniors have had success with prescription appetite stimulants. Your loved one’s doctor can discuss the pros and cons, including side effects and appropriateness given their overall health condition.
Becoming less interested in food can be a side effect of normal aging. But by seeking medical advice and taking steps to promote healthier eating, you can help your loved can get the nutrients they need.
1Department of Health & Human Services. (2014, May 31). Dementia – eating. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/dementia-eating.
2Larsen, D. (2018, June 26). Why Malnourishment Plagues Seniors in America Today. Retrieved from https://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/malnourishment-plagues-seniors/.
3Elderly Insomnia. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.aplaceformom.com/planning-and-advice/articles/insomnia-for-seniors.
4Stevenson, S. (2018, October 3). 5 Foods That Help Seniors Sleep Better. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/6-27-14-foods-to-help-seniors-sleep/.
5Sleep Disorders: Foods That Help Sleep or Keep You Awake. (2018, February 13). Retrieved from https://www.onhealth.com/content/1/avoid_foods_before_bed_sleep_better
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