What Does a Loss of Appetite in the Elderly Mean?

Getting older means needing fewer calories than younger adults. But it doesn’t mean that a person should stop eating entirely. Elderly adults have specific nutritional needs. Staying healthy as an older person means ensuring those needs are met. There are some reasons why an older person might lose his or her appetite. Finding the cause is the first step to finding a way to cope with a loss of appetite in elderly people.

Elderly Nutrition Needs

Older people have slightly different nutritional needs than the average adult. Not only are the old usually less active than younger people, their bodies no longer function as they did in their youth.

For that reason, it’s imperative that you pay close attention to the vitamins and nutrients an older adult gets each day. The elderly often need increased amounts of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium to keep their bones and blood healthy.

Certain nutrients, such as potassium, help older people avoid chronic diseases associated with aging. Potassium plays a role in regulating blood pressure. It’s an essential mineral for anyone at risk for hypertension.

It’s also important that an elderly adult takes in plenty of fiber each day. Fiber helps keep blood sugar levels in check and increases regularity. It’s a must have for older adults who want to lower their risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Reasons For A Loss Of Appetite

If an older adult is healthy, he or she should also have a healthy appetite. A loss of appetite in the elderly doesn’t just happen for no reason. One or more factors are often behind it. In some cases, a person might lose interest in food as a normal part of aging. In others, illness can be behind the loss of appetite.

  • Reduced sense of taste and smell. Two of the five senses, taste and smell, have a significant effect on how a person experiences food. When a person loses the ability to taste, he or she also often loses interest in food. Food that seems tasteless has little appeal.
  • Untreated cancer. In some cases, certain cancers can make a person lose his or her appetite. Often, cancers of the digestive system, such as colon or stomach cancer, are accompanied by a decreased appetite.
  • Treatment for cancer. Cancer treatments often have side effects such as nausea and vomiting, which make a person less inclined to eat.
  • Some patients with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, may eat less. Often in those instances, the elderly stop eating because they feel overwhelmed by the food choices available to them.
  • Dental or oral problems. Although people are less likely to lose teeth as they get older thanks to advances in dental care, nearly 30 percent of the elderly have no remaining natural teeth. Poorly fitting dentures or a missing tooth can make eating difficult, making a person less likely to do it.
  • Liver or kidney failure. Organ failure can also make an older person less inclined to eat. One of the earliest signs of liver failure is a drop in appetite, along with nausea and other digestive problems.
  • Certain medications. The elderly tend to have more health problems than younger people. To treat those issues, they tend to be on more medications. There’s a long list of medicines that contribute to a decrease in appetite.
  • Untreated or poorly managed depression can also play a role in a person’s lack of desire for food. While many seniors have a physical issue that causes them to avoid food, just as many avoid eating because of emotional issues.
  • Financial reasons. Poverty or not being able to afford food can be one of the main reasons for not eating. If an older adult doesn’t seem to have physical reasons for avoiding food, it can be useful to examine possible social reasons.
  • Acceptance that death is near. In some cases, an older person might stop eating because he or she thinks that the end is near. As people get closer to death, eating might bring more discomfort than enjoyment.

Signs Of A Decrease In Appetite

One of the most visible signs of a loss of appetite in elderly people is that they eat less or refuse meals. But as time goes on, some other symptoms can accompany the decrease in appetite. These symptoms can often point to a more serious issue or cause more problems themselves.

Weight loss is often connected to a loss of appetite, especially if it is dramatic and unexplained. It’s common for people’s weight to fluctuate slightly throughout their lives. But a loss of 5 percent or more of body weight in about six months is usually a cause for concern.

Since people need food to provide them with energy, feelings of fatigue or tiredness often go hand in hand with a decrease in appetite. In some cases, fatigue can be a co-symptom of a problem and not caused by the lack of food.

For example, loss of appetite and fatigue combined are often symptoms of depression. The two can also be signs of a liver problem and certain types of cancer.

What To Do If Your Loved One Stops Eating

In the elderly, loss of appetite can often point to a major illness. The first thing to do when a loved one stops eating or shows a decline in interest in food is to find the cause. Treating the underlying cause can often help a person regain some appetite.

Bringing your loved one to a doctor to get to the bottom of the issue and find the cause is a good first step. Even if you suspect that medication is causing the appetite problem, have your loved one continue to take the medicine. The doctor will let you know for sure if it’s the problem and can recommend adjusting the dose or trying something else.

Prepare the doctor’s visit by making a list of symptoms and being ready to describe the problem. The doctor is going to want to know:

  • When the loss of appetite started
  • The amount of weight lost
  • If there are other symptoms (pain, tiredness, trouble sleeping, confusion)
  • Any recent major life changes (such as a losing spouse or another family member)

Depending on the condition the patient is in, the doctor’s visit might lead to a hospital stay. Some people need to receive intravenous nutrition to make up for the lack of food.

How To Encourage Your Loved One To Eat More

Once you’ve gotten a diagnosis from a doctor and have begun to treat the underlying cause of the appetite problem, it can take a while for a person to start to eat regularly. There are things you can do to encourage your loved one to eat or to stimulate appetite.

Evaluate The Environment

First, assess the environment and layout of the area where your loved one eats. If there’s a lot of noise in the room or if the light is too dim, it can make it difficult for an older adult to focus on eating. This is particularly true if the person is dealing with dementia.

Try to create a more inviting atmosphere for meals. Turn off the radio or TV. If your loved one lives in a nursing home, see if it is possible for him or her to eat in the room, rather than in a crowded, busy dining hall.

If the eating area is dark, open the curtains or turn on a light. In some cases, a room that’s too bright or that has sharp, glaring lamps can make it difficult for a person to eat. Change the position of lights if they are shining in a person’s eyes or directly on the table.

Choose The Food With Care

Getting your loved one to eat is about offering quality, not quantity. It’s better to offer nutrient-rich, healthy choices than to provide high calorie, high-fat junk food.

Often, serving smaller meals more frequently can help a senior regain his or her appetite. Limiting the choices available can also help resolve a loss of appetite in elderly people. When there’s too much available, it’s easy for a person, especially someone with cognitive decline, to become overwhelmed by it all.

Along with providing your loved one with the right food, be sure to make water available at all meals and throughout the day. People are less likely to eat when they feel dehydrated, and older adults often have difficulty detecting thirst.

Make Meals An Occasion

It can be difficult for a person who lives alone or in a nursing home to get excited about eating. But if you work with your loved one to make regularly scheduled meals an event, he or she is going to be more likely to want to eat.

Schedule regular meal times each day. You can do a traditional three meal day or have five or six smaller meal times. If you’re around, help the person set the table for each meal and sit down and eat with him or her. You can also encourage your loved one to get in the habit of eating with friends or other family members.

If your loved one has stopped eating, get to the bottom of it and get any medical conditions under control. Once you know why a person has lost his or her appetite, you can work to get that person eating again.

Have you ever dealt with a loss of appetite? What did it take to get your loved one eating again?

Let us know in the comments section below!

Photo of author

Stevie Compango, CNSC, CPT

Stevie is Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for the past 10 years. He specializes in mobility and chronic pain management. His methods have helped thousands of clients improve the quality of their life through movement.

Recommended Articles


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