Unhealthy Senior Weight Loss: What to Do When Your Loved One Starts Losing Too Much Weight

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One of the most painful and inevitable frustrations of caring for an aging adult is the inability to read minds and to properly understand everything that comes with a changing body. You don’t always know what’s normal and what isn’t. Seeing a loved one lose weight suddenly might seem normal; after all, we expect aging’s tide to bring with it a certain amount of erosion, and so we find it natural. However, while weight loss is normal, rapid weight loss can be a canary in the coal mine, a symptom of a much larger problem. If an older adult starts losing too much weight, it’s important to quickly find out the underlying causes, so that you can work to reverse a dangerous tide.

Why Do Older Adults Suddenly Lose Weight?

There are a number of reasons that an older adult may suddenly lose weight. They can include the following:

  • Cancer. Weight loss is a classic sign of many forms of cancer, which is one reason this symptom needs to be addressed ASAP.1
  • Gastrointestinal issues. Constipation, a common affliction with older adults, can cause weight loss by stopping an appetite in its tracks.
  • Depression. People with depression can sometimes be too sad, lonely, or apathetic to feel like cooking or even eating.
  • Dementia. Older adults who have dementia sometimes forget to eat, but dementia is also often associated with a decreased appetite.2
  • Diabetes. As we age, our bodies often don’t make enough insulin, and this interferes with the body’s ability to use glucose for energy. When that happens, the body starts using fat and muscle for energy, and too much weight loss can result.
  • Loss of taste and smell. Part of the aging process involves sensory decrease. When food no longer smells or tastes appetizing, your loved one may not eat enough of it to maintain their weight.
  • Dental problems. Cavities, ill-fitting dentures, sensitive teeth, and other issues can make eating painful and result in weight loss.

What to Do About Rapid Senior Weight Loss

The solutions for rapid senior weight loss differ according to the cause of the problem. Possible resolutions include the following:

  • Promptly seek a doctor’s help. This should be the first step with any unexplained weight loss. But it is especially important to rule out diseases such as cancer and diabetes – or begin treating them if needed.
  • Find appropriate medication. Prescription drugs and dietary supplements can go a long way to addressing issues such as hyperthyroidism, or the loss of appetite that comes with sensory decrease.
  • Consult a psychologist. Diseases such as dementia and depression need to be dealt with as swiftly and thoroughly as any other physical illness.
  • See a dentist. Sometimes, something as simple as getting cavities filled, having a fluoride treatment, or procuring a new set of dentures can help a person enjoy food again.
  • Get things moving. If your loved one suffers from constipation not caused by a serious illness, there are some simple remedies. Merely increasing their fluid intake, fiber, or the amount of exercise they do can help get things “moving” again,

Don’t Put Off Dealing with Rapid Senior Weight Loss

If you notice your loved one losing weight quickly and can’t explain why, schedule a medical checkup as soon as possible. This is especially important if they are already at an ideal weight – or already underweight. It could just be something as benign as the side effect of a new medication, but there’s no sense in taking chances. The sooner you find out the cause, the sooner you can address what could be a serious health concern for your loved one.

If you’re unsure how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. “Weight Loss,” November 2014, http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/side-effects/weight-loss.
  2. “Encouraging eating: Advice for at-home dementia caregivers,” December 1, 2006, https://www.nia.nih.gov/espanol/alzheimers/features/encouraging-eating-advice-home-dementia-caregivers/
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