Growing up, we become more conscious about our health, including maintaining a healthy weight through exercising and proper dietary intake.
However, unfortunately, as they age, we see the elderly lose weight without even intending to do so.
When this happens, we get bothered and worried about the health status of our dear family member. We throw questions such as what went wrong, is this occurrence normal, and such.
In this article, we’re going to explain the reason behind elderly adults losing weight, when the situation is considered alarming, and treating unintentional weight loss.
Unexplained Weight Loss In Older Adults: Why Does This Occur?
Unintended weight loss in elderly adults can be a normal part of aging. However, a sudden weight loss may be a sign of a health problem.
When is unexplained weight loss in elderly people considered to be alarming?
You should be alarmed if your total body weight loss is around 5% in 30 days. More so, if it reached 10% over six months.
Some of the health consequences of sudden weight loss in seniors may be serious, including:
- Lost of motivation and ability to do daily activities like taking a bath, dressing, and or even grooming
- Constant fatigue (tiredness and weakness)
- Increased tendencies of falls and injuries
- Worsening of cognitive and mood disorders
- Being one of the elderly nursing home residents
Unintentional Weight Loss in Older Adults: Is It Normal?
Generally, science shows that weight loss in seniors is different for men and women. This is due to human growth hormone since men produce less testosterone as they age.
Men start to lose weight at the age of 55 and above, normally. Meanwhile, women normally lose weight at the age of 65 above.
To put it straightforwardly, unintentional weight loss in older adults is common and normal.
However, there are some exceptional cases wherein the elderly’s sudden weight loss involves an interplay of their medical condition.
When you reach 30, you’ll be experiencing some normal weight loss because of losing lean body mass, such as muscle mass and bone density. Your body mass (lean) will drop by half a pound each year.
13 Common Causes of Weight Loss in Older Adults
Even if a sudden weight loss in seniors is normal, some specific underlying conditions that affect their experiencing weight loss are:
Medical studies show that older people are 11-fold more prone to developing cancer than younger ones. Early signs of cancer are verified through a complete blood count.
The fecal occult blood test may also indicate colon cancer or polyps in the colon or rectum.
Patients with cancer are commonly associated with improper eating habits related to eating disorders, such as anorexia and cancer cachexia, a metabolic malnutrition syndrome that also affects eating habits.
Sudden weight loss among incurable cancer patients is common since they experience increased metabolism, weakness, fatigue, energy loss, loss of muscle, decreased appetite, and quality of life.
However, anorexia seems to affect elderlies with and without cancer.
2) Stomach or Intestinal Disease
Elderlies are more susceptible to bloating, pain, and bacterial infection, which are caused by numerous factors that affect the regular gut microbial fauna.
It may also lead to serious medical issues such as stomach and intestinal diseases like diverticular disease, colorectal cancer, dyspepsia, irritable bowel syndrome, GERD, etc.
Technically, almost all forms of digestive disorders lead to rapid weight loss.
This is normal because there is a disruption in the normal flow of the digestive tract responsible for getting nutrients from food. In this case, malnutrition and weight loss happen.
Abdominal pain is frequently caused by digestive tract-related problems and leads to unplanned weight loss.
While depression can occur at any age, social isolation is heightened among seniors. As people age, they often spend more time alone than with other social connections due to relocation, family member separation, and such.
Research and studies have proven that loneliness and social isolation increase the chance of developing depression.
Depression may cause noticeable chest pains, unexplained chronic pain, difficulty sleeping, body aches, and a sudden drop in energy levels. These symptoms may lead to a change in appetite and even stomach and digestive issues.
An unintentional weight loss in elderly people caused by depression may put health at a greater risk. To assess depression among the elderly, the geriatric depression scale is used.
However, some people with depression tend to eat comforting foods that help relieve their stress, sadness, emptiness, and other emotional distress.
Dementia is not a common sign of aging, but the tendency to develop this increases as people grow older.
In a study, about 33.33% of people aged 85 or older are diagnosed with some form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
Dementia causes people to have mood swings, irritation, depression, and anxiety disorders.
Research and studies have identified that if it’s already the final stages of dementia, one in every two or three diagnosed patients will experience severe weight loss despite being fed all the food they want.
People diagnosed with dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease, may have a rapid weight loss. They are always in motion; that’s why they tend to burn more calories than other elderlies.
Diabetes may occur at any point in life — whether as a young adult or an older adult. However, the older population is reported to be more at risk of developing complications from diabetes like low blood sugar, kidney failure, and heart disease.
Studies show that 1/3 of the population of older adults aged 65 and above are diagnosed with diabetes. They are at high risk of contracting type 2 diabetes because of increasing insulin resistance and impaired pancreatic islet function due to aging.
People with diabetes experience sudden weight loss due to insufficient insulin. This prevents the body from getting glucose from the blood transported into the body’s cells to convert and use as energy.
This occurrence led to burning fats and muscle mass, causing a reduction in body weight.
6) Heart Problems
Another underlying condition that affects weight loss in elderly adults is cardiovascular disease or heart problem.
Congestive heart failure is the most common cause of hospitalization for elderlies above 65 years of age, which is most often caused by high blood pressure and diabetes.
Meanwhile, high blood pressure is caused by poor nutrition, unhealthy habits, and too much salt and fatty foods.
People with heart failure (HF) may often lead to unintentional weight loss, depression, and heightened levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP).
7) Kidney Disease
Did you know that your kidneys also age?
In this sense, kidney diseases are more likely to develop in older adults aged 60 and above.
During the early and middle stages of kidney disease, weight loss is considered the most significant effect among patients.
You can lose your appetite if the blood test measures how much blood your kidneys filter each minute drops below the normal range.
People start avoiding meat and other proteins at this stage, which can cause malnutrition, wasting, confusion, and weakness.
8) Side Effects of Medication
As we age, it is normal that we also have an increasing number of prescribed medications.
The sad part is that weight-loss drugs exist.
These drugs often cause people to be nauseous, constipated, or have diarrhea, leading to weight loss.
Medications have side effects, including weight loss in elderlies. Research shows that drug prescriptions may change a person’s weight, diet, and appetite by the following means:
- Alter or change the sense of taste and smell of the patients
- Patients may feel nauseous
- Patients may have dry mouth
- Patients may develop mental anorexia nervosa
- Patients may have dysphagia that makes swallowing painful and difficult
It is best to have a clinical evaluation before taking weight loss-induced drugs.
9) Financial Constraints
Living costs are getting higher as time goes by. The National Council on Aging has recently calculated that approximately 25 million adults aged 60 and above in the United States are below the poverty level.
Due to financial constraints, these older adults find it difficult to finance their rental dues, food intake, and medical costs such as over-the-counter medications or doctor’s fees.
10) Problems With Finding Nutritious Food or Feeding Oneself
Eating nutritious food and having healthy eating habits can sometimes be a pain in your wallet — one is cooking a sumptuous nutritious meal, and two is dealing with the budget.
While the cost is higher if you face extreme health concerns and risks, funding nutritional foods are also costly.
According to the Food Foundation’s Broken Plate 2021 report, healthier food choices are three times more expensive than calorie-rich foods.
In this sense, older adults who do not have many funds are forced to have unhealthy eating habits, leading to chronic health conditions and involuntary weight loss.
11) Not Getting Enough Food (Malnutrition)
Malnutrition, an imbalance in dietary intake among adults, is often manifested by involuntary weight loss or low body mass index.
Since older age is considered a risk for the growth of different diseases, older adults are the most susceptible to nutritional risk.
Older adults who are not getting enough food are becoming a major health concern as it tends to heighten mortality and morbidity rate. Alongside this, it can also cause a decline in physical activities.
Even younger people become malnourished if they do not consume food that improves dietary intake. They may also lack vitamins, minerals, and other essential supplements.
We recommend older adults who are seemingly malnourished undergo a physical examination. This condition may lead to infection, slower recovery time, and slower wound healing if left unmanaged.
Malnutrition also causes muscle loss leading to frailty, balancing issues, unprecedented falls, broken joints or bones, and disabilities which may result in a higher hip fracture risk.
12) Late-Life Paranoia
Late-life paranoia lets older people believe that people are either following them or stealing from them, even if they aren’t. This condition is most likely called “psychosis.”
Psychosis is not a common condition that would occur among younger adults but is more common among older people. Science explains that this condition may emerge if a person’s brain isn’t functioning well.
People diagnosed with this mental health condition can be overly sensitive to the effects of dehydration and overheating.
More so, they may experience symptoms of postnatal psychosis such as manic attacks. People who experience manic attacks often feel euphoric or elated, not having enough sleep but still feel completely rested, being more talkative, and thinking so fast and too much.
Alternatively, postnatal psychosis may also lead to having a low mood as opposed to a manic attack.
In this situation, people often feel sad, have low energy, lose appetite, and have difficulty sleeping.
13) Dental Issues
Good and complete oral dentures should no longer be expected of the elderly.
Seniors are found to be more at risk for several oral health problems, such as:
Darker Set of Teeth
Think about all the amount of stain-causing foods and beverages you consumed over the past n years — this will cause your teeth to darken.
Darkened teeth can be a major contributing factor to developing a more serious problem.
Do consult your dentist.
Patients diagnosed with cancer experience a dry mouth due to their radiation-induced treatments, as reflected in their head and neck area. Specific medications may also cause dry mouth.
Diminished Taste Buds
Increasing age, developing certain diseases, and undergoing several medications usually affect and impair a person’s sense of taste.
This dental condition is specifically caused by root exposure to decay-causing acids. Roots are sensitive since they do not have any enamel to protect them.
Elderlies who smoke during their young years are much more vulnerable to developing gum disease. Typically, this type of mouth-related disease is common among elderlies.
Gum disease is mainly caused by plaque and worsened by leftover foods found in the teeth, poor-fitting bridges and dentures, improper diet, and certain diseases, such as cancer and diabetes.
This disease may also lead to tooth loss in older adults, which explains why most elderly have dentures on.
Elderlies who do not like wearing their dentures and bridges are more likely to have an uneven jawbone since the rest of their teeth drift and shift into open spaces.
Elderlies who have grown to have poor dental hygiene and ill-fitting dentures are susceptible to developed stomatitis.
Inflammation of the tissue underlying a denture may also cause this to develop.
These mouth and teeth-related diseases may contribute to an elderly’s unexplained weight loss.
Seniors Having an Unhealthy Weight Loss Despite Good Appetite
Do you wonder why elderlies still experience unintentional weight loss despite having a good appetite?
The reasons for unexplained weight loss in the elderly can vary with different medical problems, mental health occurrences, dental issues, and other cognitive and mood disorders.
Elderly caretakers must note the significant early changes, especially in energy intake and appetite, eating habits and behavior, and reactions to certain drug prescriptions, to help explain the unhealthy weight loss.
Alongside this, elderlies frequently have muscle atrophy, loss of density of bones, and reduced liver and kidney cells. This may translate to having an involuntary weight loss in elderlies.
Elderlies also have a lot of medications or maintenance, which enables them to change their sense of taste. In this regard, they may no longer like their usual favorite food intake even if they have a healthy appetite.
Despite elderlies having a common unintentional weight loss, certain drug prescriptions may be taken to improve their healthy habits and increase energy intake resulting in weight gain. However, these drugs should only be taken as needed due to possible serious side effects.
What Happens When the Elderly Lose Too Much Weight?
Involuntary weight loss or unintentional decline in total body weight among the elderly is considered normal.
However, weight loss may have a detrimental effect on them, affecting their ability to function well and having a decreased quality of well-being.
Unintentional weight loss also leads to increased mortality over a year.
Tips for Elderlies to Have a Healthy Weight
Even if unintentional weight loss seems normal among elderlies due to aging conditions, there are still ways to keep a healthy weight even when aging:
- Regular exercises with strength training
- Never skip the first meal of the day
- Eat high protein and high fiber foods (e.g., lean meats, poultry, whole grain bread, beans, vegetables, fruit)
- Lessened sugar intake and other “empty calories”
- Keep yourself hydrated
- Connect with family and friends
- Have complete hours of sleep
- Choose food improves dietary intake
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Here are the frequently asked questions for unintentional weight loss among elderlies:
What Does It Mean When an Elderly Person Starts Losing Weight?
As stated, elderlies having an unexpected weight loss is quite normal.
Nevertheless, losing weight may also mean that the patient has an underlying condition that needs to be treated or managed.
What Is the Treatment for Unexplained Weight Loss?
The first step in treating unhealthy weight loss is scheduling your elderly patient for a complete physical examination by your resident family doctor.
This will help determine the underlying cause of unintentional weight loss.
Once the cause of the unexplained weight loss is determined, the underlying cause may be treated, and the normal body weight and mass may return.
In case there’s no underlying condition found in the patient’s body, we recommend you hire a dietitian to help monitor and increase calorie intake.
Family members must also be keen to provide nutritional supplementation upon the recommendation of a nutritionist during a nutrition screening initiative.
What Is the Most Common Cause of Weight Loss in the Elderly?
Elderly who lose weight unintentionally may be greatly associated with increased mortality and morbidity.
The most common causes of unplanned weight loss are malignancy, nonmalignant gastrointestinal disease, and psychiatric conditions.
Our top priority is always the good health of our loved ones and family members, including elderlies.
With this, we get immediately worried and bothered when they show signs of weakness and fatigue, such as lost weight.
As part of the natural aging process, elderlies may also experience a loss of appetite, forgetfulness, or decreased mobility due to old age.
Taking the necessary precautionary steps is always better than treating unintentional weight loss and other medical conditions that may arise along the way.
Take the first step by consulting your doctor and exercising daily to experience healthy weight gain!