It is normal for older adults to lose weight as they age. Much of this stems from the lifestyle changes that come along with advancing into your later years. But even though some weight loss is to be expected, it is important that the loss of body weight is occurring at a healthy rate.
The American Family Journal says that people tend to reach their maximum weight around 60 years of age, and after they reach the age of 70, they will begin to lose less than half a pound per year. Weight loss in older adults should be gradual — if you or a loved one begins losing weight in a way that is noticeable or dramatic, it could be a sign of a deeper issue.
In this article, we explore some common causes of unexplained weight loss and ways you might be able to treat it.
Potential Causes of Unintentional Weight Loss in Seniors
10% to 15% of seniors experience the kind of unhealthy weight loss that might indicate an underlying condition. And while that condition is worth confronting in its own right, it is also worth considering the adverse effects of the weight loss itself.
Rapid weight loss can inhibit a person's ability to perform their day-to-day tasks and put them at greater risk of falls. It can also lead to fatigue and complicate existing issues like mood disorders. Finally, it can undermine their independence by making them rely on long-term care through an assisted living facility or another medical resource.
Here are some of the most common causes of sudden weight loss.
1. Physiological Issues
One of the most obvious areas to consider when trying to diagnose unhealthy weight loss is the physical body. There are many possible culprits that might help to explain why your loved one is experiencing unintentional weight loss.
For starters, several chronic health conditions can cause someone to lose bodyweight. Whether they are having an effect on their metabolism, changing their dietary habits, or causing a chemical imbalance, it is essential that known conditions are factored into your investigation.
Common conditions can include:
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Alzheimer's or dementia
Beyond conditions like the ones outlined above, there are also a handful of more practical potential causes of unintended weight loss. Mobility issues, in particular, can play an outsized role. You might think that is counterintuitive, since being in motion is commonly associated with fitness and fat burning. But muscle weighs more than fat, and people who are not able to move adequately tend to experience a loss of muscle mass. Sometimes, the muscles even begin to atrophy.
Older adults might also begin to lose the strength, stamina, or confidence necessary to prepare food for themselves or to go to the grocery store to get the ingredients they need for balanced meals.
2. Psychological Issues
As mentioned above, Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia — which affect cognition — can lead to involuntary weight loss because many of the symptoms of dementia cause lifestyle changes that spill into their eating habits.
Depression is another major psychological issue causing weight loss in older adults. People who are experiencing depression often feel fatigued and struggle to care appropriately for themselves. It is also important to monitor things that are likely to correspond with depression — including bereavement, loss of independence, and chronic pain — as these conditions can serve as good potential indicators of the problem.
3. Medication Issues
Issues with medication can play a big role when it comes to weight loss in elderly adults. Medications are known to carry the potential of affecting weight, dietary habits, and appetite in the following ways:
- They can alter a patient's sense of taste or smell
- They can lead a patient to developing anorexia
- They can give patients a dry mouth
- They can cause dysphagia, making swallowing difficult, painful, or even impossible
- They can make a patient feel nauseated and cause them to vomit
4. Social Issues
While the three issues detailed above are a little more readily recognizable, there are certain social issues that can be harder to pick up on. That is because these types of conditions can be more difficult to measure — in part because they are subtle and in part because friends and family members might be too close to see them for what they are.
Social isolation can be a major contributing factor in explaining weight loss. This can lead to depression and can cause people to drift out of healthy habits without available points of comparison to help them recognize that there is a problem. A caregiver can be an important touchpoint to help prevent this from happening — but it is important to make sure that the caregiver is qualified and, if it is not a professional, has the time to dedicate to supporting the patient's health.
Financial constraints are another potential problem area. If someone can not afford to eat properly, they will naturally begin to lose weight as they either eat less during each meal or cut out certain meals entirely.
Treatment for Unexplained Weight Loss
The methods for treating unintentional weight loss will usually depend on the reason someone is losing the weight in the first place. Physiological issues can often be treated by a doctor through medications that can improve aspects of the overall health that were contributing to their loss of weight.
Of course, those very same medications can cause problems of their own. If that turns out to be the case, patients should report it to their doctors immediately and find out whether or not there are comparable alternatives available that might be more suitable.
As for social and psychological issues, one of the best things you can provide for your loved one is support. Staying involved in their lives and helping them retain confidence and independence can go a long way toward staving off isolation, depression, and other conditions that can lead to unhealthy weight loss.
Monitoring food intake is also a good idea. This will help to ensure that your loved ones are getting everything they need — and if they are not, having a regimented meal plan in place can help identify deviations that uncover potential problems.
If you are not able to manage treatment all on your own, you can consider professional support, either through a nursing home, an assisted living facility, or a home health care service. Regular contact with a medical professional is one of the best ways to make sure your loved one is in good health.
Keystone Health is the foremost provider of home health care services in the greater Boise area. If you, a friend, or a family member is experiencing unexpected or unintentional weight loss, one of our skilled professionals can guide you through this stage of your health care journey so that you can prevent negative outcomes and restore your quality of life. Connect with us today through our New Patient Process to get started.