If you’ve recently noticed changes in your loved one’s eating habits, unexplained weight loss or gain, or lethargy, loss of appetite may be to blame. Sometimes known as “anorexia of aging,” loss of appetite in the elderly is a common concern. Physical changes, illnesses, and social variables affect our eating patterns as we age. But simple measures can stimulate appetite and improve aging adults’ health and quality of life. Read on to learn more about common age-related causes of loss of appetite in the elderly and ways to improve their appetite.
Aging brings many physiological and lifestyle changes that can cause a loss of appetite in the elderly. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in four seniors suffer from appetite loss, which can lead to malnutrition and other health problems.
Typical reasons for appetite loss in older adults include the following:
Because loss of appetite among seniors is common, we asked dietitian and nutrition specialist Heather Garza to share advice for caregivers worried about an older adult not eating.
“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,” said Garza.
Yet, sometimes a sudden loss of appetite in elderly adults can be more severe and require treatment. If you notice unexplained weight loss or weight gain, general lethargy, or changes in your loved one’s eating habits that persist for more than one week, the first step is to consult their doctor.
Sometimes what causes a loss of appetite in the elderly isn’t aging — it could be a medical condition. Here’s a list of common health problems that may cause a loss of appetite in seniors:
Less common, albeit serious, underlying causes when a senior stops eating may also be the culprit. These could include:
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Whether your aging loved one’s lack of appetite is standard or related to a medical condition, you can do a few practical things to help them get adequate nutrition.
Elderly appetite loss could signal a problem with the medicines a person is taking. Medication side effects such as dry mouth may occur in seniors. Dry mouth occurs when the salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva, causing food to taste different and swallowing to be difficult.
“Chewing sugarless gum, brushing often, or using an oral rinse before meals can improve taste sensation and, ultimately, nutrient intake,” Garza said.
Another reason why older adults stop eating could be changes in the taste of their food. Certain medications can make foods taste different than normal, giving off bitter or metallic notes. These can include the following medications:
If your loved one says their food tastes “off” or metallic, try switching to other protein sources such as dairy or beans. If water doesn’t taste right to them, add herbs like mint or basil. Or try sliced fruits or vegetables, such as lemon and cucumber, as water infusions can help prevent dehydration in seniors. Make healthy recipes with senior-friendly ingredients.
For people of all ages, the idea of eating alone may seem unappealing. But seniors may be unable to have meals with others due to mobility problems, lack of transportation, or losing a spouse.
“Senior centers, temples or churches, and community centers may have weekly dinners and other mealtime events for seniors,” said Garza. Encourage meal “dates” with friends, family, or caregivers.
It may be tempting to offer large plates of food, but huge helpings of food 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,” Garza explained. “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.”
“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,” Garza said.
If your loved one isn’t used to a mealtime routine, start slowly by introducing a small beverage or snack during a regular mealtime. This process can help stimulate the body’s hunger signals.
Some seniors stop eating because they’re not interested in food. Ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone,” regulates appetite. Studies suggest that ghrelin production slows down as we age. Unfortunately, weight loss, malnutrition, and frailty often occur when seniors don’t eat enough.
One way to counter this natural part of aging is through prescription appetite stimulants. Talk to your doctor to determine if this is a good option for your loved one. They can review the pros and cons, including side effects and suitability, in light of a senior’s overall health.
Though it might be normal when an older adult seems to be eating less, you should still seek medical advice if your loved one refuses to eat. A doctor can give valuable advice on encouraging a healthy diet so that you can help them get the vitamins and minerals they need.
The following lifestyle and dietary changes may help some people increase their appetite naturally.
Getting regular exercise increases the amount of energy a person burns. In turn, this can increase the body’s need for fuel, which boosts hunger levels.
Proper planning can help people consume enough calories each day. To help your loved one reach their goals, try these practical tips:
If your parent is living alone, consider hiring an in-home caregiver who can help with meal planning and preparation. Home care aides can even handle grocery shopping to further reduce stress.
Sometimes the quality of the food a person takes in is more important than the quantity, but it can be tough for them to think of meal options when they don’t feel like eating. Follow these food selection tips to encourage a senior’s appetite and boost their calorie intake:
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When your loved one looks forward to mealtime, they may be inclined to eat more. Encourage seniors to implement one or more of these suggestions to make mealtime more enjoyable:
Older adults or people with limited mobility can face challenges when it comes to appetite and weight loss. The following tips may help address some of these challenges:
Loss of appetite in the elderly can occur due to aging, medical conditions, or the side effects of medications. It’s important to address this issue in your senior loved one, as it can increase their risk of illness or other complications.
Regular exercise, socializing more during meals, certain medications, and other lifestyle changes are all safe and effective ways to increase your loved one’s appetite. However, if you notice that this change in appetite persists for more than a few days, it’s essential to seek help. Your doctor can determine any underlying causes and recommend a course of action.
National Library of Medicine. (2019, January).Assessment and treatment of the anorexia of aging: A systematic review.
National Library of Medicine. (2016, February). Anorexia of aging: Risk factors, consequences, and potential treatments.
Medical News Today. (2018, February 12). How many calories should I eat a day?
Science Direct (Elsevier). (2006, July 30). Situational effects on meal intake: A comparison of eating alone and eating with others.
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