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.

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.


  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.

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