Unintentional Weight Loss in Older Adults: Causes and Solutions

unintentional weight loss in older adultsIt 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 Adults

Unintentional 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?

Any details you can contribute will help a doctor to identify the source of the imbalance. If the older adult in your care doesn’t already have one, this may be a good time to consider finding a geriatric specialist who understands the nuanced complications that can arise in the body, the mind, and the spirit as we age. If health-related causes are ruled out, you can consider whether the source of trouble may be a social or logistical one; as we age our independent abilities can become strained, and responsibilities we used to take for granted may be out of reach, such as shopping for fresh food and preparing wholesome meals. Even isolation after the death of a partner can lead to insecurities around eating and other familiar routines.

What follows is a list of diverse causes that may be at the root of unintentional weight loss in seniors:

Medical Causes

  • 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.

Psychiatric Causes

  • 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.

Social Causes

  • 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.

This list is not exhaustive; there may be other reasons a loved one is losing weight unexpectedly. The sooner you can help an older adult to get medical, psychological, and/or lifestyle attention for potentially unhealthy weight loss, the better chance they will have of recovery and rejuvenation.

How Can You Help a Senior Get Back on Track for Health?

Determining the specific cause of weight loss can lead to a clearer course of action, whether it be a medical, dental, psychological, financial, or lifestyle solution. Don’t neglect to take unintentional weight loss seriously and seek help. Beyond a doctor’s care, a knowledgeable home care manager can help to plan the best daily habits and meals to support an aging adult’s holistic health.

Metabolism naturally slows down as we age, so it makes sense that an older individual will eat less food than they used to. All things considered, it’s important to give extra attention to the nutrient quality and density of food to ensure that they get adequate vitamins and minerals, especially if they may have digestive difficulties. There are ways to make meals more appealing to declining appetites and ways to make meals more accessible even for those with tooth problems or dentures. It can also be a significant advantage if you or others can sit down for meals together with the older adult so they have companionship and encouragement to eat. If you can remain aware of your loved one’s progress, you can take proactive efforts to help them overcome limitations and reinvigorate a life of health and happiness.

As an organization committed to compassionate care and the vibrant quality of life for seniors, Institute on Aging is available to counsel you and your aging loved one regarding weight loss, regardless of the cause. IOA’s programs, services, and resources can assist seniors and caregivers in all areas of life. Contact us today to find out how.

 

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Institute on Aging

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