What Causes Loss of Appetite in the Elderly?What Causes Loss of Appetite in the Elderly

We’re accustomed to thinking of appetite as something to suppress rather than indulge in. Most people spend their lives thinking in terms of eating less so as to lose weight. While obesity is certainly a widespread problem in this country, and one that many seniors struggle with, the amount of attention we give to it can prove confusing when the opposite problem occurs.

Loss of appetite in the elderly isn’t uncommon and it can often point to larger issues that need to be treated. Unfortunately, all the emphasis our culture puts on losing weight as a good thing means that when loss of appetite starts to become a problem, it’s often hard to catch.  

The Risks of Loss of Appetite in the Elderly

Loss of appetite can lead to loss of muscle mass, which is already in increasingly short supply as you age. Unintended weight loss comes with a higher risk of infection and depression and, most troubling of all, death.

Several studies have found that when seniors suddenly lose weight, it’s not uncommon for them to die soon after. The reasons for the relationship between loss of appetite and death aren’t entirely consistent or clear, but nonetheless, it’s important to take action sooner rather than later if you notice sudden weight loss or a loss of appetite in your loved one.  

Possible Causes of Loss of Appetite

Usually when a senior loses their appetite, it’s a symptom of something else they’re dealing with. The good news is that means identifying loss of appetite as a problem could point you in the right direction toward identifying something more serious going on, so your loved one can start to seek out treatment.

Among the possible causes for sudden weight loss in seniors are:

  • Depression
  • The side effects of medications they’re on
  • Some types of cancer
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Dysfunction of the salivary glands
  • Infections of the mouth and throat
  • Periodontal disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Weakening of taste buds

Not everything on that list is deadly, but enough items are that you don’t want to leave them unattended if your loved one is at risk.

How to Tell When There’s a Problem

Up to a certain point, eating less as you age is normal. Seniors typically get less physical activity, their metabolism slows down, and as a result less calories are needed to burn. So how can you tell the difference between what’s normal, and when it becomes a problem that needs to be dealt with?

Anytime you notice weight loss that seems especially sudden or your loved one avoiding foods they used to love, then you may have cause for concern. If they turn down the chance to eat at multiple meals in a row, or seem to only be picking at each portion rather than really consuming it, then it’s worth talking to them.

And it never hurts to talk to a doctor. If you’re really unsure whether it’s normal or becoming a problem, a physician who knows your loved one personally will do a better job of determining how big of an issue it is than a blog post you found on the internet.

What Caregivers Can Do

When you start to realize there’s a problem, first try to figure out the cause. Your doctor can help with this, but being especially attentive may help you make some connections that point to what’s going on. If it’s something as simple as their teeth or dentures hurting when they eat, then you don’t want to jump the gun and start treating them for depression.

Ask them a lot of questions. Talk to them about how they’re feeling and whether or not food sounds good in general. Try introducing different types of recipes and foods to see if something sticks. If all else fails, talk to your doctor about trying out an appetite stimulant.

In most cases, by listening to your loved one and enlisting the help of a doctor, you should be able to find a solution. Getting your loved one back into the routine of eating healthy quantities can help them live longer and enjoy life more. It’s worth it.

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Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based copywriter and lifelong student with an ongoing curiousity to learn and explore new things. She turns that interest to researching and exploring subjects helpful to seniors and their families for SeniorAdvisor.com.

18 Comments

  1. Suzy March 20, 2016 Reply

    My 90 year old Mother has always been concerned about her weight. She had an unfortunate wrong diagnosis in the hospital which led to weight loss, now she just isn’t hungry and hardly eats.
    She also says she wants to die and she refuses medication such as antidepressants.

    At this point it doesn’t seem to be much I can do as an only child but let her go, maybe it’s a natural thing for someone so unhappy who refuses medication.

  2. Sharron Popovich March 3, 2017 Reply

    Thank you. This was timely and on target regarding my 92-year-old mother The appetite stimulant amt. had to be doubled, but generally worked. Cancer tests were negative. Great doctors have given her excellent care and are monitoring everything in all body systems She tells me she’s “doing great…no matter what anyone else thinks,” so she is still spunky.

  3. Landra April 22, 2017 Reply

    We put my 90 year old mother in a nursing home the last day of January and about 3 weeks later she stopped eating and about a month later she stopped taking her meds. She has lost about 30 lbs. she needs her meds because of arthritis. She is also losing her hearing and has dementia. Since she can’t hear well she is talking so low we can not understand her, then she get angry. Cant believe we put mother talking, walking with her walker and hearing a lot more than now in the nursing home, but now she is in such a weaken state. Any suggestions please from anyone.

  4. Em May 16, 2017 Reply

    My 86 year old mother developed pneumonia over Thanksgiving Day 2016. We had to make her go the the ER. She responded to medication very well and within a couple of days, she was wanting to go home.
    We, the family, decided we wanted her to go to a rehab to regain her strength. My mother was always small and thin, and at this time, weighed around 97 pounds. She walked with a walker most of the time.
    Right before she was transferred to rehab, she told me she was having a bit of trouble swallowing. So when she was in rehab, they brought out a huge van with testing equipment in it. It was found she had some weakness in the bottom of her throat which I think is supposed to close to keep food and liquid getting into the lungs, hence her getting pneumonia. After 5 days in rehab, she was sent home.A few days later, she went to her usual dr. and was now 94 pounds. She started having some at home visits from nurses and a speech therapist. She was then told she had to completely changer her diet, couldn’t have Jello, had to eat mushed food, etc. This caused depression and anxiety in my mom. Over the next couple of months, she griped about having nurses coming in and out of her home making her exercise, etc. Then she let it out that the nurse was concerned about her weight. She was now down to 82 lbs. Now, my mom was always thin, but this was too much. We kept on to her about eating more, and she did get up to 85 lbs and sustained it. But around March, she just kept feeling unwell, and constantly complaining about constipation. We were all trying to be detectives and figure out what was wrong with her. She is on many meds, like Thyroid and med for irregular heartbeat.At the end of March, my dad took her to the ER for weakness and constipation, nausea. They did tests and sent her home. She said he was shocked when they said there was nothing wrong with her. A couple of weeks later, she went to the ER again with the same complaints. Again, nothing was found. But we decided she needed to go to a rehab to regain some strength. She didnt do very well in rehab. She was constipated, they have her a enema, and she literally had forceful uncontrollable diarrhea one night, and that made her not want to eat, because she was afraid of getting blocked up. She hated the food, it was always mashed up. Even my dad said the food was bad. After 10 days, they released her. For the next 2 weeks, she remained the same. There were a few days she seemed more upbeat. This past Sunday, my dad had an ambulance take her to the hospital for weakness. She had taken some Milk of Magnesia for constipation the morning before and it caused horrible diarrhea the rest of the day. She had become weaker.
    Don’t know what alerted the ER doc but they did a scan and found a MAJOR fecal blockage, and his words were, no wonder she hasn’t been feeling well.
    She was just released from the hospital to a rehab center to gain back strength in her legs. Laying in a hospital bed for 8 days has completely immobilized her. I can’t even begin to tell you how many enemas she had, and there is still a bit of the blockage left inside, and the doctors are hoping that exercise in the rehab will loosen it up and dislodge it.
    So in my mom’s case, the doctors feel that this very large bowel blockage was causing my mom to not feel well and cause her to not have any appetite. Her home care nurse did start her on Megace, a appetite stimulant over a month or so ago but it didn’t seem to work. Maybe the blockage caused it to not work correctly? We figured this blockage was the reason she wasn’t well, and has been there for at least a few months when all this started.
    So if your elderly relative is not feeling well, has chronic constipation, loss of appetite, and overall feeling weakness, make sure there is no bowel blockage.

    • Lesley January 23, 2018 Reply

      EM
      this is absolutely fascinating as i feel my 88 year dad may indeed by suffering the same thing. had the scans, had the scopes, had the blood works and i was shocked all was clear as he too has suffered major appetite loss and severe weight loss. My mum is just waiting right now (here in dark Scotland) to go to the chemist and get a prescription for appetite stimulants.

      I seen in my dads notes after his CT scan that there is faecal impaction but they didn’t seem too bothered about that. But after reading this post i can clearly see that overlookking this could indeed be causing him to lose his apetite and indeed his much needed weight.

      Really hope your Mom has recovered and all is well. I will now use this information to hopefuly proceed to a cure for him.
      Thanks so much
      Lesley

  5. Keep the faith, my Internet friend, You are a first-class writer and deserve to be heard.

  6. Helen M Rhodes February 13, 2018 Reply

    My sister is 70 years old. She lost her appetite two months ago and has lost 10 pounds within those two months. She has a stomach problem and has been going through many test to locate the problem. She has no desire to eat and I do not know what to do. At her age, should I be worried?

    • Jamil September 30, 2018 Reply

      Helen,
      Yes, you should be worried. My Mother had those symptoms and she had Non Hodgkins Lymphoma Gastric Cancer. I wanted you to have this information so that it may help with diagnosing your sister.

    • Jamil September 30, 2018 Reply

      Helen,
      Yes, you should be worried. My Mother had those symptoms and she had Non Hodgkins Lymphoma Gastric Cancer. I wanted you to have this information so that it may help with diagnosing your sister.

    • Jamil September 30, 2018 Reply

      Helen,
      Yes, you should be worried. My Mother had those symptoms and she had Non Hodgkins Lymphoma Gastric Cancer. I wanted you to have this information so that it may help with diagnosing your sister.

  7. Mukesh February 24, 2018 Reply

    My 84 years father is eating Only one chapati in the morning and one chapati in the evening. He has very thin and very less muscles. I am a defence personnel and mostly out of my home. I take to doctor Only when i come on leave after 3_4 months. Doctors gives many Medicines which causes discomfort to him. I am unable to care my father being a paramedic. Today he has eaten Only half chapati. My leave is finished and i am going to my unit, otherwise he is active and doing regular exercise which is have advised like walking. Anulom vilom ,keggel exercise etc. What to be done please advise

  8. C.Perkins March 28, 2018 Reply

    I am 84 and in 2015 my daughter felt I should be in a continued care resident. I am a widow now 8 years. I became very depressed after my husbands death in 2010
    I despise the luxury facility, the meals are atrocious, I don’t want to socialize.
    Quite frankly I maintain a smile and try to appear normal.
    Truthfully I am losing weight depressed and my muscles have atrophied to the extent I am very weak..I really just want to die.Nothing wrong with my good sense I just want to leave this existence.Perhaps those of you concerned with your parents might understand that maybe they just want to let go,Stop messing with them!

    • Evelyn Cramer August 12, 2018 Reply

      Dear C,
      My 89 year old mother lives with me. She has almost stopped eating for over a month now and she sleeps a lot.
      I wonder if she is simply shutting down. Thanks for giving me the courage to let her be.

  9. marie freeman June 1, 2018 Reply

    My mother refuses to eat, refuses to go to the doctor, has told me if I call an ambulance for her she will decline to go, pretty sure she also has an UTI and has had one for months. I live 3 hours away from her and go out to see her at least once a week. She has signs of dementia/Alzheimer. I have no idea what to do for her. A few weeks ago she agreed to move out by me, found a place for her, she refuses to go now. I need help!!

  10. Ed Johnson July 26, 2018 Reply

    I am the one with little appetite and in my 80s, living alone, but with one child nearby. I am not completely off food, but mostly just like cereal for breakfast and some snacks with wine at night. Cooking has become impossible – meaning I don’t want to and don’t want to deal with cleaning up. Often, when at the store, I will buy things that seem like something I would like and then never eat that food, whatever it is. Bottle protein drinks an protein bars are good. Ice creams too. I worry though because this is not a balanced diet and I’ve stopped all exercising that I used to do. Really I do hardly anything at all, but don’t know how to change my life back to heathy, My doctor is not very good, so there is no sense in my seeing that doctor, but I have to find another and wonder what kind and if I need a psychologist. This is crazy since my health is otherwise good and I know it wont stay that way with my habits. If anyone has some ideas, please add a comment.

  11. Evelyn Cramer August 12, 2018 Reply

    Dear Ed, you sound depressed to me. Yes I would go see a psychiatrist. It’s amazing how much they can help.
    The same thing happened to me and I was in my 50’s.
    Stopped exercising….food was a bother…getting dressed was a bother ….I understand. Good luck to you.

  12. Carmen October 4, 2018 Reply

    Good day,

    Please I need urgent advice or help my father has lost so much weight it’s unbelievable,
    It’s not a month yet and he ended up in hospital, no one seems to know what’s the problem is.

    They have done a CT scan, lumber-punch, he even developed an infection Cdiff from the hospital as his immune system is low cause of all the unwanted antibiotics they gave him and now his sitting with delirium to I’m so worried please I need urgent help.

    Thanks so much

  13. Carol Duke October 19, 2018 Reply

    I lost.my.brother last august to cancer he was my moms only son and,bride,and joy.in sept I lost my young daughter to drug overdose.my mom weighed 70 pound at that time.in February 5 months,after the two loses my mom passed away.she made me go live with my granddaughter four months,before her death in another state.my sister tells me she,got an infection.I was,not allowed at the,hospital .I talked to her for,a few minutes on the phone and she told me she loves me,and goodbye.I think she just,stopped caring and couldn’t eat.she,ate very little anyway.can a person die from.a broken heart.I need to know if that’s why her body shut down no one,will tell me.thank you I hope someone can help me.signed lost and,alone

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