One common challenge faced by many seniors is a decreased appetite, which can lead to inadequate nutrient intake, weight loss, and a decline in overall quality of life. I have been a Dietitian for over 8 years, and these are the top 9 tricks to stimulate appetite in the elderly!
In this article, we delve into the factors contributing to decreased appetite among the elderly and explore effective strategies to stimulate and enhance their nutritional intake, ultimately promoting a healthier and more vibrant lifestyle in later years.
Is it common for elderly to lose their appetite?
Appetite loss is fairly common in the elderly.
It is also referred to as anorexia of ageing. Between 15%-30% of elderly individuals have anorexia of ageing which impacts whether they meet their daily caloric needs.
We see high rates of appetite loss in elderly women, those living in long term care homes, hospitalized patients and older elderly.
It can lead to unintentional weight loss, malnutrition and serious health conditions. When we uncover the root cause of the appetite loss, we can better know how to treat it.
What Are The Health Consequences of Appetite Loss?
If someone has poor appetite, their intake of food and fluids is likely to decline with it. An appetite is what drives us to crave certain foods and drinks. It involves systems in the brain, gastrointestinal system, digestive system, and more. It is likely too complex to fully understand, but it is incredibly important.
Elderly appetite loss can lead to:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Muscle mass loss
- Fat loss (protective as we age)
- Impaired wound healing
- Increased frailty
- Increased falls and fractures
- Poor quality of life
It can also make current health conditions worse. Malnutrition, which is a result of appetite and weight loss, can lead to early death if not treated.
Rule Out Serious Health Problems
As with any condition affecting someones health, we want to rule out more serious causes. Serious causes of appetite and weight loss can be related to:
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Parkinson’s Disease
A Doctor should investigate if there is an underlying health condition that is leading to appetite loss in the elderly.
Common Causes of Decreased Appetite in Elderly
If serious underlying health issues are ruled out as a cause of appetite loss, here are some common reason why elderly may have decreased appetite.
Natural Aging Process
Naturally as people age their appetite decreases. This is particularly dominant in elderly individuals who have lived in their own home for a long time prior to moving into a long term care home. We commonly see that independent living in elderly they usually eat smaller meals and not three regular meals daily.
Change in Medical Condition
As people age we see multiple medical conditions and diagnosis, many can affect someone’s appetite. Some examples of this include infections, fractures, surgeries, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and chronic kidney disease among others.
Changes in taste, smell, hearing and vision can all impact appetite in the elderly. These are typically managed through physical aids such as hearing aids, glasses, but taste and smell can be managed with improving food quality.
The most common form of cognitive decline is Dementia. Dementia affects up to 69% of elderly patients1. Dementia can affect an elderly person’s ability to focus at meal times, stay seated, use utensils, eat independently, as well chewing/focusing.
As dementia progresses appetite typically decreases and weight loss is a typical progression. There are nutrition interventions that can minimize the impacts of Dementia. If you want to know more, you can read this article.
Whether an elderly person has full or partial dentures, their natural teeth or no teeth at all, dental issues can have a strong impact on appetite.
If an individual is struggling with uncomfortable dentures, they are unlikely to want to eat, resulting in appetite loss.
Up to 29% of elderly persons in long term care are confirmed to have a diagnosis of depression2. Research does show that elderly depression can affect nutritional behaviour and dietary intake, and it is highly affected.
There are many medications that affect our taste buds, this is especially an issue in the elderly with many taking multiple medications.
If you want a list of medications that commonly affect an elderly person’s nutrition, check out here for a free Food-Medication Interaction handout.
Top Tricks to Stimulate Appetite in the Elderly
With all that being said, all hope is not lost in treating appetite loss in the elderly! As a Dietitian that has worked with the elderly for over 8 years, I have learned many tricks to help the elderly improve their nutrition.
Here is a tried and true list that can get you results with tricks to stimulate appetite in the elderly.
Naturally Stimulate the Appetite
An elderly person’s dental status should be checked by a dentist. They can ensure that dentures are fitting properly, natural teeth are in good condition, and there are no mouth sores that are affecting intake.
Make Food Visually Appealing
The visual appeal of food is one of the number one tips I can give. If food looks visually appealing it can make someone who has low appetite want to at least try it. Try to keep the colours vibrant, diverse colours on the plate, keep foods separate, and have different foods available.
Fortify and Flavour Foods
Making foods have enhanced flavours with salt, herbs and spices, can stimulate salivary glands. This makes someones mouth water, which can stimulate the desire to eat and eat more. Also fortifying foods by enhancing the calorie and proteins in it can help someone get the most nutrient quality in smaller amounts.
Medically Stimulate the Appetite
Physicians can prescribe medications that can treat depression in order to remove this as an affect on appetite. There are some depression medications that also stimulate appetite which can have the added benefit.
Medication Appetite Stimulants
There are certain medications that are used in the elderly as appetite stimulants. Some common medications used are Megestrol, Acetate, Mirtazipine, and Dronabinol.
There are many nutrition interventions that can help to manage the side effects of Dementia on nutrition. This can include finger foods, small frequent meals, increased snacks available, fortified foods, staff assistance and more. If you want more tips for managing Dementia, be sure to check out the articles recommended above!
Environmentally Stimulate the Appetite
Dining Room Environment
The atmosphere that someone eats in is almost as important as the food that is put on the table. Ensure that the eating environment doesn’t have television playing, quiet music playing, keep staff conversations to a minimum, engage with patients, adequate lighting, and a home like environment.
Offer Oral Nutritional Supplements
Adding an oral nutritional supplement in between meals, particularly at MedPass, it can help to increase someones intake. The usual low dosage to start is 60 mL, 3 times per day.
Make Eating Easier
If there are sensory or physical impairments that make it difficult for an individual to eat independently, correct this! You can use non-slip mats under plates, wide handled utensils, two handled cups and more. There are many adaptable meal time items that can enhance someone’s desire to eat.
When Appetite Tricks Don’t Work
There will be certain circumstances when tricks to stimulate appetite in the elderly simply no longer work. This can be due to a number of reasons, but sometimes it can be related to end of life.
If you want to learn more about the nutrition signs at the end of life, I have written many articles on that but I recommend starting here.
This isn’t to say that just because someone loses their appetite that end of life is near. Sometimes you simply need to try multiple nutrition interventions in order to find something that works. Everyone needs individualized plans to stimulate their appetite, so don’t be afraid to try more than one!