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Sudden Weight Loss in the Elderly: Warning Signs You Shouldn’t Ignore

By Danny SzlauderbachJanuary 6, 2022
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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 a sign of a serious health problem. Learn more about the causes of sudden weight loss in seniors and the steps you can take to keep your family member healthy.

Do you lose weight when you get older?

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 decline as you age, according to the medical journal American Family Physician.

Generally, a person’s weight is the highest around age 60, with 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,” said 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.”

What is sudden weight loss for seniors?

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.

Though some weight loss can be a normal part of aging, 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 can be serious:

    • Loss of ability to perform activities of daily living like bathing, dressing, and grooming
    • Fatigue
    • Greater risk of falls and injuries
    • Worsening of cognitive and mood disorders
    • Increased need for long-term care like assisted living facilities or nursing homes
    • Infections

Common causes of unintentional weight loss in seniors

Although sometimes the cause of 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:

  • Cancer, which can affect weight and appetite in many different ways
  • Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia, which can change eating habits
  • Gastrointestinal issues, which may lead to malnutrition
  • Hyperthyroidism, which accelerates the body’s metabolism
  • Depression, which can lead to a loss of appetite

Many behavioral and social factors may also affect an older person’s eating habits and nutrition level:

  • Adverse effects of taking multiple medications
  • Limited mobility
  • Reduced food intake due to dental issues
  • Isolation
  • Financial constraints
  • Inadequate or improper caregiving
  • Alcoholism

Warning signs of failing senior health

When it comes to weight loss in the elderly, watch for a few key warning signs:

  • Depression. Sudden weight loss can be associated with depression, social withdrawal, or loss of a will to live.
  • Loss of smell and taste. Though a normal part of the aging process, loss of these senses can be worsened by medication or disease, which can result in anorexia.
  • Constipation. A common complaint, constipation can be a result of a diet that is lacking adequate nutrients and fluids. Though there are several over-the-counter remedies for constipation, Dr. Fabius also recommends combating poor nutrition with a daily multivitamin and possibly a dietary beverage supplement.
  • Loss of appetite. Whether a result of chewing problems or disease, a sudden lack of interest in food is a cause for concern.

Why it’s important to track weight loss in elderly loved ones

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,” Dr. Fabius says.

An exam can help you discover and rule out potential causes. In situations like cancer, 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 as they happen.

How to help doctors monitor weight loss and malnutrition

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.

Dr. Fabius recommends his patients weigh themselves twice weekly, with assistance from caregivers or family members if necessary. 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.

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“It’s important to see, in that history taking, how many calories they’re actually burning,” advises Dr. Fabius. “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:

  • Is the person taking in enough calories?
  • If so, are they still losing weight?
  • Do they have an appetite?

It’s helpful for doctors to understand psychological and social factors in the patient’s life, such as dementia, depression, social 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.

How senior living communities help manage unintentional weight loss in elderly

Senior care facilities often keep track of factors contributing to your loved one’s sudden weight loss as part of their regular services. Most communities, especially nursing homes, measure weight and vitals regularly. Many communities will also work with residents and their families to develop special diet plans to help the seniors manage their weight and improve their overall well-being.

Assisted living communities offer different services depending on each resident’s needs. Most assisted living communities offer meal plans and special dining options, medication management, health monitoring, and social opportunities to help keep senior residents active and safe.

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, staff will likely check their weight weekly or more. Staff at assisted living communities tend to develop close relationships with residents, so it is unlikely for drastic changes in weight or eating habits to go unnoticed.

Sources:

American Family Physician“Unintentional weight loss in older adults.”

British Medical JournalInvestigation and management of unintentional weight loss in older adults.”

Canadian Medical Association Journal.“Unintentional weight loss in older adults.”

Author
Danny Szlauderbach

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