What Are the Dangers of Sudden Weight Loss in the Elderly?

Old woman in a bed
A close-up of an elderly woman laying in bed. (Image: Kliim/iStock/Getty Images)

Sudden, unintentional weight loss in the elderly can signify a number of underlying medical concerns. In her article Evaluating and Treating Unintentional Weight Loss in the Elderly, medical doctor Grace Brooke Huffman warns that elderly patients who lose weight suddenly are at greater risk of developing other conditions as well. Decreased mobility, medications, state of mind and financial difficulties can all contribute to sudden weight loss.

Significance

Depression is one of the leading causes of unintentional weight loss in seniors. According to MedlinePlus, depression in seniors can be difficult to recognize. The psychological state can be directly caused by medication or other illness or may be due to feelings of uselessness and fear of death. Lack of social interaction, loneliness and inability to participate in regular activities can also lead to depression.

Consequences

The consequences of sudden weight loss include increased mortality rates. Grace Brooke Huffman explains that there is a strong correlation between the quality of life and quick, unintentional weight loss. Muscle wasting takes place when the elderly lose weight too quickly. Their immune systems can become severely compromised, making them more at risk for developing infections.

Function

It can be difficult to determine which came first, the medical complications or the weight loss. While sudden weight loss can lead to depression, for example, an altered state of mind can reduce appetite and the desire to eat. Taste and smell naturally decline with age, which can cause a decreased desire to eat. But certain medications can also affect the senses. Dementia, such as that in Alzheimer's disease, is often related to sudden weight loss. In fact, weight loss often correlates with the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Features

A sudden weight loss of more than 10 percent of a person's body weight can signal more serious complications. Caregivers should watch for signs of quick weight loss that could signify cancer, hyperthyroidism or liver disease. Rapid weight loss is considered a health risk when it occurs within a six-month period.

Solution

Metabolism slows down with age, meaning seniors don't need to eat as many calories as they previously consumed. Reduced activity also adds to a decreased need for food to fuel energy needs. According to the AGS Foundation for Health in Aging, caretakers and family members can reduce the impact of the decrease in appetite and avoid sudden weight loss by monitoring a senior's diet. High calorie supplements such as milkshakes, cheese and whole grains can help maintain proper weight. For women, healthy weight is considered to be 100 pounds for the first 5 feet and 5 pounds for every inch over that. Men at 5 feet should weigh at least 106 pounds. Add 6 pounds for every inch over that.

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