Detecting and Treating Weight Loss in Seniors

Most of us tend to recognize that elderly people tend to become smaller the older they get. As people age, they lose weight and perhaps even become a couple of inches shorter. Most people believe that weight loss in elderly people is a natural part of aging. But losing a significant amount of weight without trying to do so can indicate a potentially serious health issue for seniors.

Unintentional weight loss is defined as a loss of 5% of your body weight within a six to 12-month period. Recent data suggests that close to 30% of people over the age of 65 experience involuntary weight loss. Weight loss can interfere with day-to-day functionality, causing a decline in quality of life. It can also lead to a higher mortality rate among the elderly.

Studies show that between 9% and 38% of elderly people die within one to two and a half year of experiencing involuntary weight loss. It also increases the odds of being hospitalized or suffering a fall, while causing a decline in recovering from an illness or injury. Thus, the issue must be identified and handled properly before it leads to dire consequences.

Causes of Senior Weight Loss

The causes and risk factors for unintentional weight loss in the elderly can be quite varied. It can be a by-product of a more serious medical ailment. A disease or medication taken to treat that disease can be the cause of weight loss in elderly people. However, the issue can also be brought about by psychological factors or even as a result of lifestyle.

There is a clever mnemonic for unintentional weight loss in elderly people, “Meals on Wheels.” This helps medical personnel and others recognize most of the possible causes of unintentional weight loss.

Medication Effects

Many medications have common side effects like dry mouth or changes in appetite that can lead to weight loss.

Emotional Problems

Conditions like anxiety or depression may take away the desire to eat.

Anorexia Or Alcoholism

Both conditions are associated with malnutrition, which can directly lead to weight loss.

Late-life Paranoia

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can increase the risk of weight loss.

Swallowing Disorders

Diets to treat swallowing disorders may be undesirable and over time cause weight loss.

Oral Health

Painful dentures or missing teeth can make eating unpleasant and lead to weight loss.


Poverty and lack of access to food can cause malnutrition and subsequent weight loss.


Not paying attention during meals due to issues related to dementia can reduce food intake.


There are several thyroid-related conditions that can alter metabolism and cause weight loss. The medications to treat these conditions can also change appetite.

Enteric (Intestinal) Issues

Gastrointestinal distress can signal nutritional deficiencies or lead to a lack of appetite.

Eating Problems

The loss of ability to feed one’s self can lead to poor nutrition and weight loss.

Low-salt Or Low-cholesterol Diet

Diets designed to improve heart health in the elderly can cause weight loss. They are also less appealing, leading to lower food intake.

Social Problems And Stones

Lack of social interaction can diminish eating habits and prevent access to preferred foods. Also, gallstones can be painful and cause a lack of appetite, leading to weight loss.

To further simplify, weight loss in seniors tends to come down to disease, psychiatry, or life circumstances. Diseases, most notably cancer, as well as the medications used to treat those diseases are a common cause. Psychiatric issues like depression are a common cause of weight loss in elderly people. Any life circumstances that prevent proper nutrition may also be the catalyst for sudden weight loss in the elderly.

Symptoms To Look For

Obviously, noticing a sudden loss in weight over the span of a few months is an obvious symptom, but noticing that kind weight loss is not always easy. Clothes becoming baggy, rings falling off fingers, or the need to tighten your belt can all be signs that you’ve lost a significant amount of weight.

Of course, these are not the only ways to identify weight loss or predict that significant weight loss may be coming in the immediate future. For instance, loss of appetite or a general lack of interest in food or eating is one of the most common predictors of sudden weight loss. As indicated earlier, there are several reasons for a lack of appetite.

Even a change in diet could lead to sudden weight loss. Being forced into a new diet can take away the desire to eat, lowering your overall intake of food. Meanwhile, unintentionally altering your diet could result in malnutrition and ultimately weight loss. Chronic constipation is one way to detect a lack of proper nutrition even before significant weight loss can begin.

Signs Of Aging

Unfortunately, many of the symptoms of involuntary weight loss are common parts of the aging process. Changes in your sense of taste and smell are common as you age and can make food less appealing. It’s also common for seniors to feel full sooner, which can also reduce the amount they eat and deprive them of proper nutrition.

Seniors also get sick more often and may struggle to take care of themselves and function on a day-to-day basis. This can play a role in suffering sudden weight loss. Thus, it’s important to recognize when these symptoms begin to set in and start to have an impact on your life.

Treatment for Senior Weight Loss

The links between the elderly and weight loss are so diverse that treatment for it is not always simple. Once the issue is discovered along with the root cause of the problem, then the underlying cause can be treated. Of course, it’s likely that treatment for sudden weight loss in the elderly will take place on multiple fronts.

Dietary Restrictions

One of the first actions that can be taken is removing any dietary restrictions. This can sometimes be complicated for patients with a specific diet to treat diabetes or other conditions. However, relinquishing harsh diet restrictions can encourage someone to eat more. This, in turn, will help to stabilize their weight.

For seniors who struggle with the process of eating, changes in food intake may be necessary. If chewing or swallowing food is an issue, diets consisting of soft foods and liquids can be arranged to help increase food intake. Flavor enhancers can also be useful for elderly people when their sense of taste and smell become diminished.

In other instances, smaller portions and more frequent meals can be effective. This can help to compensate for many seniors feeling full faster. When possible, it’s also possible to increase exercise and activity to increase appetite. Of course, this isn’t always possible with elderly people who struggle with their mobility.

The video below discusses proper nutrition for seniors, which is important in preventing or treating sudden weight loss.


Unfortunately, there are no medications specifically for unintentional weight loss in the elderly. Certain medications can improve appetite and lead to weight gain. But many of those drugs have not been tested on the elderly for this reason. Such medications are also designed for other conditions and come with possible side effects that may not be ideal for elderly people.

However, nutritional supplements can be effective for increasing calorie intake. They are often found in liquid form or other forms that should be easy for seniors to consume. It’s easy to keep in mind that nutritional supplements should not be viewed as meal replacements. They should be taken in between meals to help maintain a healthy weight.

Lifestyle Changes

Of course, some of the possible treatments for unintentional weight loss in the elderly go beyond medicine. A lack of access to desirable foods can lead to a reduced appetite. The same is true if a person is isolated and uninterested in eating. These issues may need to be addressed by a caregiver. A caregiver can help make the proper lifestyle adjustments.


With most medical conditions, the best treatment is prevention. Unintentional weight loss in the elderly is no exception. Once an elderly person loses a significant amount of weight, it can be difficult to regain the lost weight. This makes it imperative to pay close attention to the possible symptoms of unintentional weight loss and treat it before it becomes an issue.

In addition to being aware of the causes, it may be wise for seniors to undergo nutrition screening on a regular basis. Undergoing a nutritional assessment with a professional can help to identify risk factors. This includes many of the “Meals on Wheels” risk factors discussed earlier. Knowing if you’re susceptible to any of these risk factors is a great first step in preventing sudden weight loss.


While many people may believe that losing body mass is a natural part of the aging process, it can be a rather serious issue. Dealing with weight loss in the elderly in a timely manner is crucial. Otherwise, weight loss can lead to other health issues or even death.

Do you or someone you know have experience dealing with unintentional weight loss? Let us know in the comments section.

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers is currently a Resident in the Internal Medicine program at UTMB. He studied at the University of Queensland School of Medicine as well as received his Master’s in Public Health with a focus in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Southern California. His background is in biology, computer science, public health, and internal medicine.

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  • Daily Mail, "Beware of weight loss elderly are told: Dropping a few pounds can be an early warning sign of conditions including cancer and dementia ",
  • Pharmacy Times, "Involuntary Weight Loss - An Ignored Vital Sign in Seniors",
  • AAFP, "Unintentional Weight Loss in Older Adults",
  • NCBI, "Unintentional weight loss in older adults",
  • AAFP, "Evaluating and Treating Unintentional Weight Loss in the Elderly",
  • Scielo, "Involuntary weight loss in elderly individuals: assessment and treatment",