Loss of Appetite in the Elderly – Causes and How to Cope

Loss of appetite and changes in appetite are a natural part of aging, but it’s still important to make sure seniors get enough nutrients. Our nutritionist Heather Schwartz shares her advice on what to do if your elderly parents won’t eat.

Loss of Appetite in the Elderly

You’ve asked, and we’ve answered. Our recent senior nutrition poll highlighted readers’ concerns about elderly dietary problems—and your biggest worry is lack of appetite in the elderly.

Poor appetite doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem, but there are some warning signs to watch out for, and some easy things you can do to help your loved ones get the right nutrition.

Why Has My Parent’s Appetite Changed?

Although it’s normal for appetite to change with age, there are a number of different factors that can also cause elderly appetite changes:

  • Lack of interest in food due to changing taste buds, depression or loneliness
  • Lack of energy to cook
  • Loss of appetite due to health conditions
  • Medication side effects

“I remind my clients often that loss of appetite (and thirst) is a normal part of aging and doesn’t always mean something is wrong,” says Heather Schwartz, A Place for Mom nutrition expert and Registered Dietitian at Stanford Hospital and Clinics. “However, minimizing the detrimental effects of poor nutrient intake is always important, no matter from where the low appetite stems.” And of course it’s critical to rule out any underlying health problems, so if your loved ones aren’t eating well, a good first step is always to consult a physician.

What’s Normal and What Should I Be Concerned About?

The aging process brings with it a host of normal physiological, perceptual and other changes that can lead to decreased appetite in the elderly, including:

  1. A lower metabolic rate and lessened physical activity means seniors need fewer calories.
  2. Dental problems or gastrointestinal changes (like lactose intolerance) that go along with age can effect the appetite.
  3. Changes to the sense of smell, taste and even hearing can affect the enjoyment of food.

However, if your loved ones are making poor food choices because of their changing tastes, or if they aren’t getting enough to eat, then that’s cause for concern. It’s critical for seniors to get the right nutrition for their changing dietary needs, because vitamin or nutrient deficiencies can cause significant health problems.

Changes to taste or appetite also occur in conjunction with some serious illnesses, including:

  • Head and neck cancers
  • Salivary gland dysfunction
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Mouth and throat infections or periodontal disease
  • Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease

Any unexplained changes to your loved ones’ dietary health, including unexpected weight loss, weight gain, or general malaise, should be checked out with a physician.

How Can I Stimulate Appetite in My Senior Parent?

If you’re concerned about a lack of appetite in your elderly loved ones, there are a few practical things you can do to help them get enough nutrition:

1. Increase nutrient density, not portion size. 

“I ask caregivers not to increase the volume of food they serve to seniors who may have low appetites,” says Schwartz. “Rather, increase the nutrient density of the foods they serve.” Don’t intimidate them with a huge helping, in other words—but you can often add healthy extra calories in the form of olive oil, a little peanut butter or avocado.

2. Set a regular eating schedule.

“Our bodies tend to thrive off regularity, as do our hunger and thirst signals, so when we stray from our usual patterns, so does our appetite,” says Schwartz. She suggests starting slowly, adding a small beverage and/or snack during a normal meal time. This can help get the body’s hunger signals get going again.

3. Encourage social meals.

For people of any age, just the prospect of eating alone can reduce appetite. For seniors, accessibility and availability of social contact can be even more of a problem. Schwartz suggests checking out the meal options at senior centers, temples or churches, and community centers, as well as meal “dates” with friends, family or caregivers. Even meal delivery services can help.

4. Be aware of medication side effects.

If the problem is dry mouth, Schwartz says, “Chewing sugarless gum, brushing often or using an oral rinse prior to meals can improve taste sensation, and ultimately nutrient intake.” If meat is tasting “off”—and a common complaint is that some medications make foods taste metallic—then try other sources of protein like beans or dairy. If water doesn’t taste right, try adding herbs, or sliced fruits or veggies like lemon or cucumber.

5. Consider using an appetite stimulant.

Some seniors have had success with prescription appetite stimulants. First, though, consult a health care provider to make sure it’s appropriate.

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