Loss of Appetite in the Elderly: Why it Happens & How to Get it Back

Claire Samuels
By Claire SamuelsApril 23, 2021
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Aging brings many physiological and lifestyle changes that can cause a loss of appetite in the elderly. 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 lethargy, 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.

5 age-related reasons seniors eat less

There are several aging-related reasons why the elderly refuse to eat 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, California.

Typical reasons include the following:

  • A lower metabolic rate and less physical activity mean seniors need fewer calories.
  • Changes to 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, can accompany aging and make eating uncomfortable.
  • An inability to prepare meals, particularly for seniors who live on their own and experience difficulty cooking or using kitchen utensils and appliances.
  • A lack of or changes in a daily routine can cause discomfort or confusion around meal times.

10 health conditions that are causes of loss of appetite in the elderly

Sometimes a lack of interest in food is not an effect of aging. Common health problems that can decrease hunger:

Less common, but serious, underlying causes of a loss of appetite in the elderly may also be the culprit:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Head and neck cancers
  • Mouth and throat infections
  • Periodontal disease
  • Salivary gland dysfunction
  • Thyroid disorders

Appetite stimulants for the elderly

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

Seniors who take medications might experience side effects like dry mouth. Dry mouth means the salivary glands aren’t producing enough saliva, which can make food taste different and swallowing difficult. 

“Chewing sugarless gum, brushing often, or using an oral rinse before meals can improve taste sensation and, ultimately, nutrient intake,” Schwartz says.

Some medications can make foods taste metallic. If your loved one says their meat is tasting “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, the 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 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,” 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 appetite stimulants for the elderly

Some seniors have had success with prescription appetite stimulants, but consult a physician to find out if this is a good option for your loved one. Their doctor can discuss the pros and cons, including side effects and appropriateness given the senior’s overall health condition.

Becoming less interested in food can be a side effect of normal aging. But by seeking medical advice on what to do when the elderly won’t eat and taking steps to promote healthier eating, you can help your loved one get the nutrients they need.

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How to increase appetite in the elderly

The following lifestyle and dietary changes may help some people increase their appetite naturally:

Exercise

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.

Plan and prepare meals

Proper planning can help people consume enough calories each day. To do this, try the following:

  • Consider eating six to eight small meals per day instead of three large ones
  • Identify the time of day when appetite is greatest, and eat at that time
  • Try to eat meals and snacks at the same times each day, even when not hungry
  • Encourage regular snacking by placing fruit, nuts, and other nutritious foods around the house
  • Ask someone to help in the planning and preparation of meals

Choose foods wisely

  • Avoid filling up with high fiber, low-calorie foods, such as raw fruits or vegetables, at each meal. Discuss the benefits of a low fiber diet with a doctor
  • Add sweet fruit or full-fat ice cream to milkshakes and desserts to boost flavor and nutritional content
  • Drink some calories each day in the form of smoothies, protein shakes, or special high calorie nutritional supplement drinks
  • Try eating proteins 1 hour after taking them out of the refrigerator; some people prefer the taste of protein foods at room temperature

Make mealtimes more enjoyable

To do this, people can try one or more of the following:

  • Choose tasty and enjoyable foods
  • Add extra flavor with herbs, spices, sauces, or marinades
  • Use garnishes and colorful foods to make meals more appealing
  • Change the menu regularly to avoid getting bored with a particular food
  • Watch a favorite television show or movie while cooking or eating
  • Play music while preparing food or eating
  • Set the table using favorite place settings
  • Try different sized plates to see what works best
  • Make mealtimes a social event; research suggests that eating with others increases food intake

Advice for older or less mobile adults

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:

  • Use grocery delivery services or meal delivery services if going out to get food is a problem
  • Set an alarm for mealtimes if forgetting to eat is an issue
  • Ensure that dentures fit correctly to avoid pain or discomfort while eating
  • Invest in adaptive utensils if joint pain or dexterity is a problem
  • Try to visit an occupational therapist or dietitian for assistance

Loss of appetite in the elderly can occur as the result of aging, medical conditions, or the side effect of medications. However, it is important to address this issue, as it can increase the risk of illness and 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 this change in appetite persists more than a few days, it is important to seek help. Your doctor can determine any underlying causes and recommend a course of action.

Claire Samuels
Author
Claire Samuels

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