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6 Common Reasons Why Seniors Can Unexpectedly Lose Weight

In most cases, weight loss is a good thing. Shedding excess pounds through proper diet and exercise offers a whole host of health benefits, including reduced blood pressure, lower risk of diabetes, and a stronger heart for people of all ages.

However, if an elder loved one drops weight unexpectedly and unintentionally, it could be a sign of a serious underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Not managing the situation appropriately can seriously impact one’s overall well-being and quality of life, especially those in their vintage years.

It’s been noted that while 8 percent of adults experience unintentional weight loss, up to 27% of people over the age of 65 lose weight involuntarily. If an elderly loved one has unintentionally lost 5% or more of their body weight over a 6-month period, or 5 to 10 percent within 12 months, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention to determine the cause.

Health risk factors in sudden weight loss in seniors

Sudden, unexpected weight loss in older adults can bring some serious health consequences, including:

  • Increased fatigue
  • Loss of ability to do simple tasks such as bathing, grooming, and dressing
  • Larger risk of falls and injuries
  • Decreased immune system efficiency
  • Changes in cognitive and mood disorders
  • Greater risk of infection
  • Loss of independence, leading to the need for in-home nursing or a transition to long-term care in nursing homes or assisted living facilities 

All of these conditions can affect the joy and fulfillment our elderly should be experiencing in their vintage years. This makes it crucial to diagnose the problem before the situation becomes worse.

Why has my elderly loved one lost so much weight?

There are generally six common reasons why older adults can lose weight unexpectedly:

  1. Social isolation: Due to public health restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many social activities, family celebrations, and public outings were cancelled. This can lead to older adults, especially those living alone, being more socially isolated than ever before. Loneliness due to isolation can cause decreased appetite, or the lack of desire to prepare and eat wholesome meals. 
  2. Chronic medical condition: Underlying chronic diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, hyperthyroidism, heart disease, uncontrolled diabetes, and gastrointestinal issues can all lead to weight loss in older adults. All of these conditions can cause changes in appetite, eating habits, and weight management in many different ways.
  3. Reaction to medication: The side effects of taking certain medications can trigger weight loss in older adults as they reduce their desire to eat. These side effects include altered taste or smell, dry mouth, nausea, and vomiting. Mixing multiple medications, also known as polypharmacy, has been known to lead to anorexia. 
  4. Mental illness: Unintended weight loss is very prevalent among people with mental health issues, such as depression, bipolar, personality, and anxiety disorders, and substance abuse and alcoholism. It may also indicate Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, as the person may simply forget to eat, or eat food that isn’t good for them.
  5. Inability to perform activities of daily living (ADLs): The lack of ability to carry out ADLs can trigger sudden weight loss. For example, an elderly person who no longer drives may find themselves walking or taking transit to the grocery store. This can mean carrying groceries for a longer period of time, which means less food in the pantry and fewer meals to sustain healthy caloric intake.
  6. Natural aging process: It could also be that the body is simply changing naturally due to age. As we age, people usually experience muscle atrophy, loss of bone density, and a reduction in liver and kidney cells. Additionally, the loss of tissue reduces the amount of water in the body. All of this can result in weight loss that may be noticeable, but not necessarily cause for alarm.

What to do when your elderly loved one loses too much weight

Weight loss in the elderly is often associated with declining health. It’s important to seek medical help for unintentional weight loss for early detection and treatment of any underlying medical concerns.

At the examination, the doctor will walk through the person’s family history, perform a physical exam, and possibly order tests that will help determine the cause of the weight loss.

Tips for managing weight in seniors

Unintentional weight loss is common among older adults, however there are many steps to take to maintain a healthy weight through aging, and preserve an optimum quality of life: 

  • Have them share meals with a companion to help the senior – especially one who suffers from dementia – eat a balanced meal
  • Get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day (brisk walking, gardening, swimming, etc.)
  • Add strength training to your exercise routine to help maintain your muscle mass through weight machines at a gym, lighter handheld weights, or by using your own body weight for resistance like in yoga or Pilates.
  • Stay hydrated by getting 64 ounces of water every day, either by drinking it or in part from foods that are naturally rich in water such as cucumbers and tomatoes
  • Eat more small meals and snacks, and don’t go much longer than 3 hours without eating
  • Ensure you eat about one gram of protein to every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight, focusing on wild salmon, whole eggs, organic whey protein powder, and grass-fed beef
  • Choose high-fiber foods such as whole grain bread, beans, vegetables, and fruit
  • Limit empty calories, like sugars and foods with little or no nutritional value
  • Eat breakfast every day
  • When possible, walk with friends as a social activity
  • Get plenty of rest and sleep
  • Maintain relationships with family and friends

Support for health issues in the elderly

Looking after an elderly loved one’s health needs can be rewarding, but sometimes everyone could use a little support. When you need help maintaining the well-being of the older adult in your life, talk to us at CareHop. We specialize in providing on-demand or live-in care that includes homemaking and meal preparation, companionship at home or for outside activities, and help with personal care.

We also provide professional, respectful, and empathetic Alzheimer’s disease or dementia care that brings you peace of mind that your loved one is being cared for in accordance with their needs and your family’s wishes.

For more information about our programs that bring joy and sunshine into your loved one’s life, please feel free to contact us anytime.

About the Author

Michael Lu is the founder of CareHop, specializing in providing compassionate support for individuals and families touched by Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.