It can be hard to notice gradual changes in your aging loved one’s health and behavior when you see them every day. But keeping an eye out for these changes—perhaps spending a few minutes to take daily caregiver notes—could catch health insecurities before they decline further. This includes paying attention to unintentional weight loss, which could be due to inadequate food intake and well as a wide range of other contributing factors that may indicate an underlying health, behavioral, or emotional issue. Whatever the cause, it’s important to get to the bottom of why an aging adult is losing weight and to avoid potentially bigger problems and dangers to their health.
The Dangers of Unintentional Weight Loss in Older AdultsUnintentional weight loss should always cause us to sit up and pay attention. It is true that some aging adults who are overweight can benefit from healthy weight loss to alleviate pressure on joints and cardiac function. However, in these cases, it is important that weight loss is controlled and deliberate so the individual is losing fat, not valuable muscle mass, and to ensure that no other adverse side effects arise from too-rapid changes in the body. When weight begins to drop off unintentionally—whether the aging adult could benefit from some weight loss or not, medically speaking—the risks to their health could be very serious. Following unintentional weight loss, the immune system can deteriorate, leaving an older adult more vulnerable to infection and illness with a weakened ability to recover. They may also experience fatigue as weight and overall health decline, which can prevent activity, exercise, and socialization. If they do lose weight in muscle mass, your aging loved one will weaken and may be at greater risk of falls and injuries, which can be particularly dangerous for older adults.
Why Do Older Adults Lose Weight Without Trying?One older adult’s weight loss may look like another’s on the surface but be completely different in terms of its origins and have different implications for their long-term health. The first step toward ensuring your aging loved one regains their health is to determine the cause of their unintentional weight loss. As a caregiver, you can accompany your aging loved one to a doctor’s visit and offer observations:
- For how long has their weight been declining and how rapidly has it happened?
- Have any of their behaviors changed around eating or activity?
- Have they seemed stressed or depressed?
- Have they complained of feeling ill or having difficulties eating?
- Dementia. As dementia progresses, challenges with mobility, chewing, memory, confusion, suspicion, and appetite decline can lead to weight loss.
- Gastrointestinal disorders. Disorders of the digestive tract can affect nutrient absorption and appetite.
- Cancer. Cancers can affect the body in different ways, sometimes hijacking energy the body would otherwise need or affecting appetite and the way the body processes nutrients, leading to weight loss.
- Endocrine disorders. Thyroid disorders, diabetes, and other hormone-related disorders can affect metabolism, digestion, and nutrient absorption.
- Difficulty chewing and swallowing. Various medical conditions, including neurological disorders, can affect an aging adults ability to chew and swallow.
- Depression. Depression may cause loss of appetite and be connected with isolation, loss of independence, grief, and other underlying medical conditions.
- Anxiety. Anxiety disorders can have far-reaching consequences for an older adult’s health and sense of well-being.
- Poverty. Financial difficulties can become a major barrier to adequate nutritious food intake.
- Inaccessibility and food insecurity. Mobility issues or lack of local options can impose limitations on the nutritious food that is available for seniors when they can’t manage shopping on their own or quality stores are too far away.
- Loneliness and isolation. When an aging adult spends more time alone, they may lose touch with regular eating habits and lose interest in eating altogether.
- Independent abilities. If an individual is unable to regularly prepare healthy meals on their own and they do not have assistance, their diet and nutrition will suffer.
Physical Challenges with Eating
- Ill-fitting dentures. Eating can become a hassle with dentures or nearly impossible when they don’t fit or adhere well.
- Teeth or jaw pain. Dental problems or jaw tension can make eating painful.
- Altered taste or nausea. Perhaps as a side effect of medications or natural developments of aging, changes in taste or bouts of nausea can disrupt an older adult’s desire and tolerance for eating.