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Loss of appetite in the elderly

As we age, our appetites naturally decline, and our weight can fluctuate as a result.

While eating a little less can be usual for older people, after all, fewer calories are needed to maintain weight as our metabolism slows down, in some cases, going off food can be a symptom of another issue. So, if you or someone you care for has less interest in their food or is unexpectedly losing weight, getting medical advice quickly is important to rule out any health concerns.

But even if underlying illnesses are ruled out, a loss of appetite can lead to malnutrition if you’re not eating as you should be. Poor nutrition can also exacerbate other illnesses or contribute towards trips or falls.

While you’re unlikely to want the same foods at 70 as you craved at 17, ensuring that you are eating a balanced diet with enough calories to maintain your health is even more vital as you age.

With this in mind, we explore the causes and ways to overcome a loss of appetite in the elderly.

Causes of loss of appetite in older people

There are numerous factors that may lead to a loss of appetite for an older person, some are more serious than others, therefore if you or someone you know has lost interest in food, it’s important to rule out more serious health issues and diseases, such as dementia, cancer or other illnesses. So, your first step should always be to speak to your GP.

However once serious illnesses are ruled out, there are other reasons why an older person may want to eat less, which still need attention. These include:

Poor Dental Health

Poor dental health can make it difficult to eat. This is because chewing and tasting food can be painful. If you have a loved one with poor dental health, make sure they see a dentist regularly. They may need dentures or other dental devices to make eating easier.

Medication and loss of appetite

Loss of appetite is a common side effect of several medications. If you are taking a medication that is causing you to lose your appetite, there are a few things you can do to try and counteract this symptom. First, make sure you are eating regularly and consuming enough calories. It may be helpful to eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day.

You can also try taking your medication with food or a snack to help increase your appetite. If you are still struggling to eat enough, talk to your doctor about changing your medication or trying a different one.

Infections

There are a number of different infections that can cause you to go off food. Some of the more common ones include:

  • gastroenteritis: an infection of the stomach and intestines that is usually caused by a virus, such as the norovirus. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain.
  • food poisoning: an illness caused by eating contaminated food. Symptoms can vary depending on the type of food poisoning, but may include vomiting, diarrhoea, headache and fever.
  • Salmonella infection: this is usually caused by eating contaminated food, such as poultry or eggs that have not been cooked properly. Symptoms include diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and fever.

If you develop any of these symptoms after eating, it's important to see a doctor as soon as possible so that the cause can be identified and treated. In some cases, such as with gastroenteritis, you may just need to let the illness run its course. However, with other types of infection, such as food poisoning, you may need antibiotics to clear the infection.

Depression

Depression can lead to a loss of appetite. This can be due to a loss of interest in food, or because the person is not able to eat due to feelings of sadness or anxiety. Depression can also lead to changes in metabolism, which can further reduce how much someone wants to eat.

It’s estimated that depression affects one in ten people over the age of 65, and for those who feel lonely, mealtimes can exacerbate the feeling of being alone.

And it’s a vicious cycle. Someone who feels depressed may lose interest in food, or not feel they have the energy to eat. And yet many foods can help to fight against depression. Therefore, if you are worried that you or a loved one is suffering with depression, speak to your GP as soon as possible.

Dangers of malnutrition in the elderly

Our bodies need nutrients to function, therefore malnutrition affects every system in the body, and can put an older person at risk of increased vulnerability both to illnesses and complications.

The main consequences of malnutrition are:

  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Falls
  • Difficulty coughing, which increases the risk of chest infection
  • Heart failure
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Reduced ability to fight infection

Therefore, it is vital that, if you spot the signs of malnutrition in yourself or a loved one that you act rapidly to avoid complications or ill health.

Ways to combat loss of appetite for yourself

There are many possible causes of loss of appetite, and the best way to combat it may vary depending on the underlying cause. If you have a medical condition or are taking medication that is causing your appetite to decrease, speak to your doctor about ways to manage this side effect. If you are simply not in the mood for food, try these tips to help you get your appetite back:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration can sometimes cause or worsen feelings of nausea, which can lead to loss of appetite.
  • Eat small meals more often. If you're not feeling up to eating a large meal, try grazing throughout the day on smaller items like fruits, nuts, or crackers.
  • Get moving. Exercise can help increase appetite by stimulating hunger hormones in the body.
  • Try aromatherapy. Certain essential oils like ginger or peppermint can help to ease nausea and increase appetite.

How to help an older person to eat more

If you are worried about a relative not eating enough and have excluded some of the causes mentioned above, you help them by trying to increase their appetite.

Getting an older person to take part in light exercise can help to stimulate the appetite and get them eating a little more. Take a look at our ideas for exercises for seniors

In some instances, where appetite has dwindled it can be the case that the person is simply forgetting about mealtimes. In circumstances like this, using reminders can help. The SureSafe Guardian allows you to check in on your loved one and even set checks and reminders which may make things easier.

If malnutrition is a risk, then it’s worth looking more closely at how you actually help the person to gain weight through their current meals.

One thing that you can do is to make sure that they are eating a balanced diet and getting enough calories. You can also make sure that they are getting enough protein by including protein-rich foods in their diet or providing them with a protein supplement or adding calories through dressings or additions such as grated cheese or nuts to usual meals.

Speak to your relative or friend about their food preferences and consider how you can build upon the foods that they do enjoy – for example by adding more butter to plain sandwiches or extra vegetables to sauces.

One of the main things to be aware of, is that tackling a loss of appetite early is more likely to lead to better outcomes. So, whether you’re feeling a little off your food, or worried about a loved one losing weight – do speak to your/their doctor as soon as possible.

If you’re looking for the latest technology to assist an older person, consider getting in touch with us to find out how our devices can help give you peace of mind. Browse our products or give us a call on 0800 112 3201 to find out more.

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