Loss of appetite is considered common among seniors, but this phenomenon shouldn’t be chalked up to "just getting older." In this blog, we’ll talk about some of the reasons seniors experience loss of appetite, such as medication side effects, symptoms of diseases such as thyroid disorders or dementia, or simply loneliness from isolation. Appetite loss should always be evaluated by a physician to understand its cause and find an appropriate solution.
Signs of Loss of Appetite in Seniors
You may have noticed some of the signs that your parent or loved one is beginning to experience changes to their nutrition and health related to reduced appetite. Those signs include:
- not eating during normal meal times; eating just a few bites
- feeling sick when food is presented
- not feeling hungry at all
- unintentional weight loss
Losing their appetite can have lasting effects and should be addressed right away if you notice it. In fact, just a 10% loss of body weight has been linked to a higher mortality rate within 6 months of the weight loss.
Common Causes of Diminished Appetite
Gradual appetite decrease is common as we age; as your loved one expels less energy in retirement they'll need less calories to support their activity level. But if you see a dramatic increase that happens somewhat suddenly and results in extreme weight loss, it's time to involve your loved one's primary care provider to identify causes and establish a treatment plan.
A myriad of medications can cause sudden loss of appetite, so changes in appetite that follow a medication change may be related. This list, while not exhaustive, includes medications that include appetite loss as one of the most common side effects. If you believe there is a relationship between the signs you see and a recent medication change, notify the physician who ordered the medication so you can discuss risks and benefits and make a decision about continuing treatment.
Alzheimer's or Other Forms of Dementia
Appetite loss and dementia go hand in hand, unfortunately. If you know your friend or family member suffers from Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia and you begin to see that their intake has decreased, there are a few things you can try:
- choose a plate that provides a clean backdrop so they can see their food more easily (a white plate for a salad, for example)
- be patient; give them plenty of time to eat and don't rush meals
- put their drinking glass in their hand periodically to encourage fluid intakes
- choose foods that they like and may remember from earlier years
In some cases, dietary changes may be needed, but you should always consult a physician or speech therapist first.
Appetite changes can be an indication of thyroid dysfunction, which is usually relatively easy to diagnose and treat, depending on the cause of the dysfunction. If your friend or family member is demonstrating weight loss and has no known diagnosis that might be contributing, schedule time with their PCP to explore conditions that may be less obvious like thyroid disorder. Depending on other factors, they may order lab tests or diagnostic imaging to learn more.
As many as 25% of all patients who are in kidney failure - including those undergoing dialysis - experience loss of appetite. While intervention may not be necessary for those in end stage kidney failure, those who are still leading fulfilling lives and receiving dialysis need help meeting their dietary needs.
Chronic Liver Disease and Hepatitis
Appetite loss is often one of the earliest signs of problems with the liver, like hepatitis or liver disease. This is one example of why it's so important to reach out and let your loved one's healthcare team know what you've observed so they can identify and treat any causes early.
Reduced metabolism, COPD, depression, and certain cancers can also cause lack of appetite.
Strategies for Increasing Intake Despite Appetite Loss
There are a number of things you can do to help your loved one get adequate nutrients when they're suffering from loss of appetite:
- Encourage snacking. Sometimes eating six smaller meals or snacks per day - that are high in protein and nutrients - is easier for somebody with no appetite than eating three larger meals.
- Treat dry mouth. Dry mouth, often caused by common medications, can make eating uncomfortable and cause dental problems that make it harder to eat. There are glycerin swabs and mouthwashes that are designed to help alleviate dry mouth symptoms.
- Join him or her for meals. We often associate meal time with socialization, sharing stories around the dinner table. Bringing joy back to mealtime by dining together might help.
- Offer finger foods. Dementia, arthritis, and other age-related conditions can make navigating silverware more difficult. Eliminating barriers by offering finger foods might encourage your loved one to eat more before giving up.