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What Causes Loss of Appetite in the Elderly?

Written by Angelike Gaunt
 about the author
4 minute readLast updated March 30, 2023

There are many reasons an aging loved one may be eating less, such as dieting or being less hungry as a result of a less active lifestyle. However, loss of appetite can also signify underlying physical or mental health issues that need to be addressed. When a senior is losing weight or doesn’t seem to have as much of an appetite, it’s vital to understand the root cause.

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Losing weight isn't always good

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 your parent ages. Unintended weight loss comes with a higher risk of infection, 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.

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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
  • 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 your parent ages 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.

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What caregivers can do

When you start to realize there’s a problem, first try to figure out the cause. Your parent’s doctor can help with this, but being especially attentive may help you make some connections that point to what’s going on. It may be that meal prep, such as getting groceries, is hard for them to do and a food delivery service may be a good solution. Or 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 your parent 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 parent’s 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.


Meet the Author
Angelike Gaunt

Angelike Gaunt is a content strategist at OurParents. She’s developed health content for consumers and medical professionals at major health care organizations, including Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the University of Kansas Health System. She’s passionate about developing accessible content to simplify complex health topics.

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