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Feature Article How to Spot Problematic Weight Loss in Your Loved One

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If you’ve visited your aging parents or grandparents recently and felt concerned that they may be losing weight unintentionally, don’t feel like you’re overreacting to want them to talk to their doctor or visit a dietitian. 

Often termed “anorexia of aging,” unintentional weight loss in older adults is a concern because it can lead to infections, a decline in their ability to function and an increase in mood disorders, if already present. It is also associated with an increased risk of death. You’ll know if the weight loss is a concern if it’s more than 5 percent of total body weight over the course of one month, or 10 percent over six months or longer. 

“Any weight loss that is unintentional in the elderly should be investigated,” said Heidi Graham, Dietitian at Samaritan Albany General Hospital.

There are many factors that can lead to unintentional weight loss. Depression or social isolation, an onset of dementia and immobility are some of the more obvious concerns. Studies have also found low income to be a contributing factor. This is a good time to make sure your loved one’s teeth and gums are in good condition and any dentures fit properly, so a visit to the dentist may be in order.

Often, certain medications can cause a decreased appetite and lead to weight loss. The most common conditions that are treated by these types of medications are those for heart conditions, brain and mental health conditions, and bone and joint conditions. Even antibiotics, decongestants, antihistamines, certain supplements, alcohol and nicotine use can decrease appetite and lead to weight loss.  

Additionally, a recent study showed that women over the age of 80 are more susceptible to weight loss because they produce more of the hormone peptide YY (PYY), the hormone that tells humans when they’re full. 

From this laundry list of potential causes, you can see that it might be hard to pinpoint exactly what could be causing the weight loss. And, there might be more than one cause. The best thing to do is for a doctor to conduct a full history and physical exam to determine possible causes. If you are concerned that your loved one may not be forthcoming to the doctor, talk about attending the appointment with them so the doctor can hear your concerns. The doctor may have you work with a dietitian who will help you to identify reasons for weight loss and create a treatment plan that may include nutrition supplements. The goal of nutrition intervention is to help your loved one maintain their lean muscle to prevent falls associated with weakness. 

Depending on how concerned the doctor is with the weight loss, he or she may order tests to pinpoint the problem. Treatment options may include adjusting current medications or adding an appetite stimulant. 

Learn more about Dietary Guidelines and Nutrition & Getting Older.