Spring 2022 Newsletter
By Haylee Whitehurst, Occupational Therapy Doctorate Student
College of Nursing & Health Professions
Arkansas State University
Edited by Jessica Camp, DNP, APRN, AGCNS-BC, NE-BC, CDP
Did you know?
Unintentional weight loss occurs in 15%- 20% of older adults and is associated with increased morbidity and mortality.
Background/Significance of Unintentional Weight Loss in Older Adults
It can be difficult to notice gradual changes in a loved one when family members see them frequently. That’s why, as professionals, we must keep an eye out for weight changes over time. Weight loss can be due to inadequate food intake as well as other contributing factors that may indicate an underlying health, behavioral, or emotional issue. Some overweight aging adults can benefit from healthy weight loss to relieve pressure on joints and heart function. In these cases, it is important that weight loss is controlled and on purpose so the individual is losing fat and not valuable muscle mass. However, when weight begins to drop off unintentionally, whether the aging adult could benefit from some weight loss or not, medically speaking the risks to their health can be very serious. Following unintentional weight loss, the immune system can deteriorate, leaving an older adult more vulnerable to infection and illness with a weakened ability to recover. An aging adult may experience fatigue as weight and overall health decline, which can prevent activity, exercise, and social participation. If they do lose weight in muscle mass, the aging adult will weaken and may be at greater risk of falls and injuries, which can be very dangerous for older adults (Gaddey & Holder, 2014).
Share These Tips with Families to Help Prevent Unintentional Weight Loss in Older Adult Patients
- Add spices and color to food
- If your family member has lost the sense of taste, then they might not be excited about eating. Consider incorporating some hot pepper, mustard, sage or other spices and flavorings in your loved one’s next meal.
- Consider supplements
- Supplements can nourish your loved one’s body and prevent malnutrition. Ask your family member’s doctor or registered dietitian what supplements would be the most appropriate.
- Exercise with your loved one
- Physical activity can improve appetite, so encourage your family member to exercise a few times a week. For example, you can go on a walk or take an aerobics class. Regular exercise will also improve bone strength and boost the immune system.
- Prepare snacks
- If your family member isn’t consuming enough calories during meal times then prepare some healthy snacks. For example, cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots, are packed with vitamins and minerals older adults need to thrive. Almonds, fresh fruit, and boiled eggs are other great snacks. For additional calories, peanut butter, cheese, puddings and other easy-to-eat foods may be suggested.
- Check medications
- If your family member takes medication that causes swallowing difficulties, nausea, or dry mouth, it can negatively affect his or her appetite (Gaddey & Holder, 2014). Voice your concerns to your loved one’s doctor and have that doctor reevaluate these medications to see if adjustments can be made.
Determining the specific cause of weight loss can lead to a clearer course of action for us as professionals, whether it be a medical, dental, psychological, financial, or lifestyle solution. Treatment often involves a multidisciplinary team, including dentists; dietitians; speech, occupational, or physical therapists; and social service workers (Gaddey & Holder, 2014). Do your part by recognizing unintentional weight loss and assessing the cause, bringing attention to the treatment team, or making appropriate referrals when needed.
Everyone’s metabolism naturally slows down as they age, so it makes sense that an older adult will eat less food than they used to. It’s important to give extra attention to the nutrient quality and caloric density of food to ensure that they get adequate vitamins and minerals, especially if they may have digestive difficulties. There are ways to make meals more appealing to older adults with declining appetites and ways to make meals more accessible even for those with dental problems. It can also be a significant advantage, if you can encourage friends and family to sit down for meals together with the older adult so they have companionship and encouragement to eat whenever possible.
Common Strategies to Address Unintentional Weight Loss in Older Adults:
- Dietary changes
- Environmental modifications
- Nutritional supplements
- Flavor enhancers
- Appetite stimulants
Resources for Professionals to give to Family Members
- Areas Agencies on Aging (AAA)
- Meals on Wheels
- Senior Centers
- Transportation options
- Division of Aging, Adult, & Behavioral Health Services (DAABHS)
- Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE)
- Senior Community Service Employment Program
Gaddey, H. L., & Holder, K. (2014). Unintentional weight loss in older adults. American Family Physician, 89(9), 718–722. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2014/0501/p718.html
Programs for Adults & Seniors. (n.d.). Arkansas Department of Human Services. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from https://humanservices.arkansas.gov/learn-about-programs/programs-for-adults-seniors/