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MEDICAL CONDITIONS

Potential causes of a change in appetite in older adults

Ageing brings physical and lifestyle changes that may cause a change in appetite.

February 02, 2023

Elderly lady cooking

As we grow older, our appetite doesn't remain as it once was. As a result, you may notice loved ones eating less or refusing to eat altogether.

A change in appetite may result in concerning signs like sudden weight loss, which should be checked by a health professional. Here are some potential causes of a change in appetite in older adults. 

Reduced physical activity

 As we get older, we often become less active. This can result from less social interaction or concern that their mobility is not what it was.

If your older loved one has a sedentary lifestyle, the number of calories they require will be less, and they may lose weight. However, if this weight loss is significant, it may indicate an underlying health issue that should be checked by a doctor.

Reduced mobility can also result in muscle loss, which can increase the risk of falls. For older adults, the consequence of falling can be severe, and if you are concerned, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of falls.

Medications

Many older adults take medication to manage their health conditions. However, medications often have a range of potential side effects, including loss of appetite.

Older adults can also be at a higher risk of nutritional deficiencies because medications interact with particular foods or suppress the sensation of hunger. 

If your loved one has changed medications or started taking new ones, then you should be aware of this. Sometimes combinations of medications can affect people differently, and a GP or pharmacist should be able to advise. 

Poor sense of smell or taste

Loss of smell or taste can occur with advancing age. Changes in taste or smell might make food less appealing or taste bland, which may upset your older relatives, further suppressing their desire for food. 

Malnutrition

An insufficient supply of nutrients to the body might reflect a shift in mood and energy levels, leading to loss of appetite and malnutrition. Malnutrition can be caused by poor diet or problems absorbing nutrients from food.

Older adults with malnutrition might be at an increased risk of falls and health complications. 

Digestive problems

Physiological changes to the digestive system can contribute to a decrease in appetite. For example, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is one of the most common digestive disorders that can make consuming and digesting food uncomfortable. 

Studies show that although elderly patients with GERD have fewer symptoms, their condition is more often severe. In addition, complications related to the condition can have serious consequences. As with all health concerns, a medical professional is the best source of advice.

Dental problems

Difficulties chewing or swallowing might occur in old age due to a dry mouth or an infection. As we get older, we become more susceptible to developing gum disease because we produce less saliva. As a result, older adults can be vulnerable to gum disease and poor oral health, leading to a loss of appetite. 

It's essential to visit the dentist regularly, and you can use the NHS website to work out if your loved one is entitled to free dental treatment.

Old man eating alone

Chronic illness

If we feel unwell, we often don't want to eat as much, which can also be true of chronic and long-term illnesses. For example, people with chronic pain conditions, cancer, thyroid disease and a range of other illnesses may experience changes in appetite.

Cancer patients often find their appetite is affected by pain levels and chemotherapy treatments. In addition, medications associated with different types of cancer might also lead to a decrease in appetite. 

For hepatitis or chronic liver disease, the most common symptom is loss of appetite due to liver inflammation.

Dementia or Alzheimer's Disease

Weight loss can occur in people living with dementia, particularly if they pace frequently or wander because they will burn more calories.

They may be affected by other changes too; for example, their favourite foods may change, or they may lose the ability to communicate health issues that affect appetite. If your loved one is receiving dementia care, then you and the carers should monitor this. 

Depression or anxiety

We don't always consider depression affecting older adults, but it is reported that it affects around 22% of men and 28% of women aged 65 years and over.

Depression, anxiety and loneliness are often causes of loss in appetite. In addition, relatives might not have company to eat with, further intensifying loneliness and depression. 

What should you do if you notice significant changes in appetite?

An underlying condition can cause a change in appetite, so if you have any concerns, you should make an appointment with a health professional.

If a health condition is not the cause of changes to appetite, then there are a few things you might like to try which can encourage healthier, regular eating: 

  1. Make sure to enjoy meals with your older loved ones when you can. Research shows older adults who eat with others tend to make more nutritious food selections. 
  2. Remember that there can be a change in the taste and smell of your older relatives, so try to cook vitamin-rich meals. 
  3. A routine can help to prepare a daily schedule, so meals are at the same time each day of the week. Pre-prepared frozen home-cooked meals are an excellent way to ensure healthy food is available for them.
  4. Try to convince them to practice simple strength and balance exercises or to go for a short walk every day. 
  5. You can also consult a GP to introduce prescribed appetite stimulants for your older relatives.  

 

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