We all want to stay healthy and fit as we age, but when does losing weight become worrisome for older adults? Rapid, unintended weight loss in an elderly loved one could be the sign of a serious health problem. Learn more about the causes of sudden weight loss in seniors and steps you can take to keep your family member healthy.
Sudden senior weight loss is quick, unintentional, and unexplained weight loss in older adults. About 15% to 20% of seniors experience sudden weight loss, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
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Though some weight loss can be a normal part of aging — partially due to shrinking muscle mass — losing a substantial amount of weight over a short period of time can be a sign of an underlying condition. Weight loss in older adults is considered a problem when there’s a loss of 5% body weight in one month or 10% over a six-month period.
Some of the health consequences of sudden senior weight loss are:
Although sometimes the cause of unintentional weight loss in elderly adults goes undiscovered, it may be a sign of an underlying medical condition. If your family member is experiencing rapid weight loss, don’t ignore it.
Some of the conditions commonly associated with sudden weight loss in the elderly include:
Many behavioral and social factors also may affect an older person’s eating habits and nutrition level, including:
Yes, but only in small amounts over time. It’s normal for your body’s levels of water, muscle, and fat — which all determine your total body weight — to change as you age, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Generally, a person’s weight is the highest around age 60, with small decreases of less than half a pound every year after age 70. This means gradual weight loss is expected, but you shouldn’t disregard a significant, noticeable drop in weight as part of the natural aging process.
How much weight loss is considered dangerous? “As little as 10 pounds over a month would concern me,” says Dr. Barry Fabius, medical director of geriatrics at Holy Redeemer Health System in Philadelphia. “I’m also concerned about weight loss that is slow and progressive.”
Early detection and action are key to improving your loved one’s health. “At the first sign of unhealthy weight loss, get them to see a physician as soon as possible,” says Fabius.
An exam can help you discover and rule out potential causes. If cancer is the culprit, early treatment can be life-saving.
No matter the apparent cause of the weight loss, simply staying aware of your loved one’s eating habits and weight will help you notice any worrisome changes soon after they happen.
In addition to performing a physical examination of the patient, doctors may ask the caregiver for a detailed history of the patient’s eating habits and weight.
Fabius recommends his patients weigh themselves twice weekly, often with assistance from caregivers or family members. He also suggests keeping a food diary, which will help paint an accurate picture of a person’s caloric intake and the timing of the weight loss.
“It’s important to see, in that history taking, how many calories they’re actually burning,” Fabius says. “If a patient is meeting or exceeding their caloric needs, that’s going to make me suspect hyperthyroidism or a malabsorption syndrome.”
Here are some critical questions doctors may ask:
It’s helpful for doctors to understand psychological and social factors in the patient’s life, such as dementia, depression, isolation, and income status. Keeping a detailed record of all prescription and over-the-counter medications could also be useful to doctors and is a safe practice in general.
Keep in mind that senior care facilities often keep track of these factors as part of their regular services. Most nursing homes measure weight and vitals regularly.
Assisted living communities offer different services depending on each resident’s needs. It’s common for senior residents in assisted living to have their weight and vitals checked monthly. If weight loss is a concern when the resident moves in, they’d mostly likely have their weight checked on a weekly basis — or even more often if sudden weight loss occurs. Staff at assisted living communities tend to develop close relationships with residents, so drastic changes in weight or eating habits are unlikely to go unnoticed.
When it comes to weight loss in the elderly, watch for a few key warning signs:
Most assisted living communities offer services like meal plans, medication management, health monitoring, and social opportunities to help keep senior residents active and safe.
If you’re concerned about a senior loved one’s health, A Place for Mom’s local Senior Living Advisors can help you learn more about the right option for your family.
Gaddey, H. L., Holder, K. Unintentional weight loss in older adults. American Academy of Family Physicians. 2014: https://www.aafp.org/afp/2014/0501/p718.html
McMinn, J. Investigation and management of unintentional weight loss in older adults. British Medical Journal. 2011: https://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d1732
Stajkovic, S., Aitken, E.M., Holroyd-Leduc, J. Unintentional weight loss in older adults. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2011: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3050948/#b1-1830443
Danny Szlauderbach is an editor and content writer at A Place for Mom. Since 2010, his work in strategic communications has spanned across several industries, including education, technology, and financial services. He’s a member of ACES: The Society for Editing and a graduate of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.