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