When weight loss is part of a healthy, active lifestyle, it’s usually a good thing for the body. But when it happens unintentionally, particularly for seniors, it can also be a serious health concern.
Unintentional weight loss is a common part of the aging process and can be prevalent for older adults. It’s exactly what the name says: a loss in total body weight without intent to make that happen. And while sometimes it’s a significant amount, a few pounds of weight loss might also need a watchful eye. For older adults, even 5% loss in body weight within one year can be a concern.
“Our goal is to try to prevent that from happening because it can lead to other problems,” says Courtney Riffe, RD, Nutritional Services Director at Era Living.
Causes and Concerns of Unintentional Weight Loss
Courtney says that when it comes to the residents at Era Living, she and the nursing staff work to identify the root cause of weight loss. Unintentional weight loss can have any number of causes. It could be for physical, psychological and emotional, or nonmedical reasons. The biggest culprits can be difficulty chewing or swallowing; constipation; loss of taste or smell; cognitive impairment and memory disorders; lack of interest in food; arthritis; and changes in mood or social support (like loss of a spouse).
When unintentional weight loss occurs, it can be an indication of poor or inadequate nutrition, which is a risk factor for many conditions. Not getting enough nutrients can weaken the immune system, increasing the risk for infection. It can increase fall risk, as there’s a greater likelihood of muscle loss and weakness from inadequate nutrition. It can also contribute to health decline and speed up the progression of chronic disease.
Unintentional weight loss can also be an underlying cause of an undiagnosed health problem, like a digestive disorder, diabetes, cancer, or thyroid impairment. This is where unintentional weight loss can be an important signal that the body needs additional care.
Weight Loss During the Pandemic
During the pandemic, some seniors may be at greater risk for unintentional weight loss. Prolonged isolation likely means much less contact with loved ones and medical care. And these are the people who would notice changes in habits, routines, appetite, and mood. For seniors with cognitive impairment, the loss of the routines and social contacts can cause confusion, which may affect the regularity of healthy nutrition.
In general, it’s advised to check in more often with senior loved ones who need to shelter and physically distance during the pandemic. This will help to pick up on changes in mood, any health concerns, and any diet troubles as well. And for those caring for a loved one, it will help to keep an eye on meal intake and overall health conditions; changes in these can be a red flag. If you notice weight loss, Courtney recommends assessing it by talking with the loved one and the family to identify barriers, root causes, or underlying issues.
Treating Unintentional Weight Loss
When it comes to treating unintentional weight loss, you may often see high-calorie meal supplements as a quick solution. However, those aren’t always needed or even a good treatment option: the intervention should work around the root cause and focus first on whole foods.
“If we can identify the root cause of why someone is experiencing weight loss or not eating as much, then oftentimes we can prevent further weight loss, just by intervening in that capacity,” she says.
For example, someone could be eating less because their arthritis is a barrier to opening containers. In this case, any item that’s difficult to open would be part of the root cause and would require someone to come by to help open packages and containers and keep them accessible. Or, if someone with a memory disorder is forgetting to eat and drink, they may require regular check-ins, nursing care, or caregiver assistance.
“If there’s a barrier to their intake, we want to remove that first,” says Courtney. “And then we want to encourage them to eat well-balanced, nutritious meals. We know that nutrients, vitamins, and minerals are best absorbed from food sources, compared with supplements. And we want to connect them with the foods they enjoy.
“The fiber, phytonutrients, and good antioxidants in plant and animal sources are so beneficial for our health and can’t always be mimicked in shakes or supplements,” she adds. “Even things like cottage cheese and yogurt can be just as nutritious as supplements.”
On the Era Living side, this means coordinating with the kitchen to help offer the residents foods that are appealing and also meet nutritional needs. (If meal planning for yourself or a loved one, add some memory-boosting foods too.) If that approach is unsuccessful, that’s when the care team may add in a high-calorie, high-protein food supplement.
And if in a situation of dangerously low weight, Courtney says they bring all interventions on board. They collaborate with the nursing team and families and put the focus on food as well as supplements. Any supplements added in are timed between meals to help maintain a true mealtime appetite.
When it comes to preventing unintentional weight loss, though, Courtney says that diet and awareness are the biggest health factors.
“The most important thing for older adults is to try to eat a well-balanced diet and monitor their weight—this will help seniors lower health risk and enjoy a healthier lifestyle overall,” she advises.