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Dealing with a Loss of Appetite: Why You Need to Eat

Posted 8/19/2016 by UHBlog

Seniors often have eating problems. If you're concerned, see us for advice.

Dealing with a Loss of Appetite: Why You Need to Eat

The loss of appetite among seniors can be a devastating problem. In addition to concerns about weight and health, not eating enough food can impact your quality of life and thinking, as well as how effectively your medications work.

“Loss of appetite is a problem among seniors,” said geriatric medicine specialist William Schwab, MD, PhD, AGSF. “Seeing a geriatrician is important since often times, weight loss from anorexia is not one clinical problem, but the result of many factors in different systems.”

There are many reasons why an older person may lose their appetite. Among these are:

  • Illnesses – Anorexia (loss of appetite) occurs in both the young and old, especially when fighting off the flu or other illnesses. The difference is that the severity and duration are greater in seniors.
  • Medications – Many of the medications that you're given can lead to a suppressed appetite or cause dry mouth. Sometimes, they make you nauseated.
  • Trouble swallowing – Stroke and/or other neurodegenerative diseases can make it hard to swallow
  • Dental problems – Advancing age can result in tooth decay, missing teeth or poorly fitting dentures
  • Dietary restrictions – If you see multiple doctors, they may put you on different dietary restrictions, making it difficult for you to find things you like to eat

“Often times, seniors just won’t want to make something because they don’t feel it's worth the time and effort if it's just them and their spouse,” Dr. Schwab says. “For those with dementia, they may think they've already eaten, even when they haven’t.”

Lack of appetite can lead to many different problems. In the short term, not eating properly results in low blood sugars in seniors with diabetes. Longer term, muscle wasting can occur, which can cause frailty, falls and/or broken bones. Many medications should be taken with meals to protect the stomach lining. Other medications are carried by proteins in the blood to get where they need to go, and without enough food can result in lower-than-effective doses.

If you are concerned about your relative or friend, Dr. Schwab has one easily tracked indicator you can use.

“Keep an eye on their belt,” he says. “Are they at the same loop or do they have to tighten it over time? If they don’t wear a belt, you can often tell if their clothes are getting looser or baggier on their bodies.”

Dr. Schwab suggests trying one of these ideas if you're worried about someone not eating:

  • Bring a meal. The best way to get someone to eat is to make it easier for him or her. When you visit, bring something that needs no preparation or is easily reheated in a microwave. This also gives you a reason to check the refrigerator to see if what's in there is fresh or, as Dr. Schwab likes to say, “hairy”.
  • Eat with them. This helps you look for possible reasons why they may not be eating. For instance, if they clean their plate when you take them out but lose weight when you don’t, the problem may be what they're eating at home.
  • Ask them. Many people may not mention things that impact their eating unless they're asked. For example, a person with arthritis may no longer be able to grasp utensils. Simply getting a fork, knife and spoon that are easier to handle may help them increase their food intake.

Don't be afraid to seek help about your loved one's weight loss or lack of appetite, Dr. Schwab says.

“Geriatricians are specifically trained to address problems in seniors by assembling together the different concerns across body systems to answer the challenge of keeping up a healthy weight,” he says.

William Schwab, MD, PhD, AGSF is a geriatrics medicine specialist and medical director of House Calls at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with a geriatrics medicine specialist or any other doctor online.

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