General Articles

Myths and assumptions surround aging, and many have to do with one of the basic activities of living: eating. We say that our metabolism slows down, so we don’t need to eat as much. Or older people just get weak as they age, so don’t worry about weight loss and frailty. But a loss of appetite can lead to malnutrition, which affects about 3.7 million older Americans, according to an AARP study. Malnutrition may damage the immune system, decrease bone mass, and inhibit wound healing. Significant weight loss is also dangerous in the elderly. A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine determined that nursing home patients who lost 10% of their body weight had a significantly higher mortality rate in the six months following the weight loss.

In addition to focusing on the appetite itself, try to find out if there is an underlying cause. A decrease in appetite could be a side effect of medication, or a sign of a medical issue. Depression, congestive heart failure, COPD, diabetes, and gastrointestinal problems, like an ulcer or bowel obstruction, often result in a decreased appetite. Sometimes the cause is even simpler, like poorly-fitting dentures. Once the underlying cause is discovered, or ruled out, you can focus on some of these tips and techniques to regain a lost appetite.

Encourage Snacking

While most of us were raised on the structure of three meals a day, that may not work for an older person with a poor appetite. Five or six smaller meals may actually encourage more calorie consumption. And while snacking is blamed on dangerous weight gain in younger people, weight gain is a good thing for an elderly person with a poor appetite. Calories are key to maintaining weight and nutrition. Researchers at Auburn University studied 2000 people 65 and older and found that snackers ate more protein, carbohydrates, and fat than non-snackers did. They suggest offering one large meal a day, and encouraging healthy snacks several other times during the day.

Offer Colorful, Flavorful Meals

We eat with our eyes first, so make sure that meals are colorful and attractively presented. Colorful foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, are also high in nutrients. Use herbs and spices to flavor foods. Restricted diets, like low sodium diets, can be bland, so find salt-free ways to flavor food and make it tempting. Consider offering comfort foods, too. Experts have found that offering treats from people’s childhood or recipes from the area or culture in which they grew up may increase their interest in eating.

Make Meals a Social Occasion

Isolation, loneliness, or even boredom can cause a lost appetite. If you can, join the elderly person at mealtimes. Invite them over to dinner, or out to dinner. Find social programs, like lunch programs at a senior center, that encourage socialization at mealtimes.

Check Health and Hydration

Dehydration can cause appetite suppression. Make sure that you offer water or other beverages at meals and throughout the day.

Another underlying cause of a lost appetite is dysphagia, a swallowing disorder that is often caused by a stroke or Parkinson’s disease. Follow these five tips for making more appetizing meals for those with dysphagia.

Laughter

This is just more proof that laughter is the best medicine. Research shows that laughter can actually stimulate appetite in elderly people. A study at Loma Linda University showed that, in addition to lowering blood pressure and boosting the immune system, laughter affects the hormones that cause us to be hungry. Laughter was shown to increase production of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” and decrease levels of leptin (the hormone that reduces appetite). Watching funny movies, sharing jokes, and reminiscing about funny memories may be able to lift our spirits and increase appetite.