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The tools available to increase appetite in older adults are not set in stone. Adults battle myriad physical and mental issues that make eating a low priority. Not eating is dangerous, though, because a lack of needed nutrients hastens death. According to eatingdisorderhope.com, 78 percent of deaths from anorexia—a lack of appetite and inability to eat—are in elderly people.
A study published in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society looked at data from 2,597 people between the ages of 70 and 79. Of those, 22 percent had a poor appetite. So you’re not alone in your battle. Caregivers all over the world struggle to find ways to increase appetite in seniors, because there is no one-size-fits-all strategy.
Causes of a Lack of Appetite
A lack of appetite often begins due to an illness, although we do naturally need fewer calories and become less active as we age. Adults who were heavy in their youth may scoff at your initial attempts to increase appetite because they are actually happy with the weight loss they see. The real problem begins when they become underweight, which makes them more weak, frail, and malnourished.
CONDITIONS THAT CAN BE LINKED TO DECREASED APPETITE
Here’s a list of common illnesses and/or social problems associated with a lack of appetite:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Dental issues
- Gastro-intestinal upset
- Kidney failure
- Liver failure
- Parkinson’s disease
- Side effects of medicines
- Slowed metabolism
- Swallowing disorders
- Thyroid disorders
Many medications dull taste buds, which removes the joy of eating and makes it difficult to find foods that actually increase appetite. In other diseases, like Parkinson’s, swallowing can be an issue, causing even a hungry person to hesitate to eat.
With dementia, the person may not be able to comprehend the concept of eating or may be unable to concentrate long enough to finish a meal. He or she may be confused by the knife and fork, not remembering how to use them. Because they can’t process the concept that we need to eat to live, attempts to increase appetite can be futile.
Ways to Increase Appetite
Before we get into specific ways to increase appetite, it’s important to emphasize that an older person—especially one battling an illness—cannot eat large portions. So for caregivers, it’s wise to serve reduced amounts of food more frequently. To maximize the results, offer meals at the same time every day—for example, 7 a.m., 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 7 p.m.
- Make the most of what you put on the plate: Older adults are often deficient in vitamin D and vitamin B12, as well as calcium, magnesium, and iron. Water and fiber intake can be issues as well; if you can’t have a bowel movement, you’re not going to feel like eating.
As people age, older adults need more protein. It’s important to include protein in every meal, if possible. To supplement, there are protein-rich products like Boost, which allow the patient to drink protein in a chocolate (or other flavor) soothing liquid.
(Here’s a hint for getting someone to drink a new protein drink: Bring the bottle and two glasses into the room and sit down. Tell the person you’re taking a break and having something to drink. Pour some Boost in a glass and take a sip, and pour some in the other glass and hand it to him or her. Enjoy that first drink together.)
In addition to increasing protein, you can make the most of your meals by ensuring every bite counts. While ice cream and pie might raise a person’s interest in eating, they will really only increase calorie consumption.
- Get ’em moving: One reason our drive to eat decreases as we age is that our calories needs also drop. It’s natural that we don’t expand as much energy as we used to, so we don’t have to eat as much. But just walking each day can help increase appetite in a formerly sedentary person.
A study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU)—published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health, & Aging—showed a link between daily activity and energy expenditure, appetite, and mortality. Lower activity was linked to decreased appetite and higher mortality. A higher activity level is associated with an increased appetite.
- Combat Loneliness: Family dinners may be a thing of the past in today’s hurried society, and the impact on our aging population’s health may be significant.
A Nagoya University study published in Physiology & Behavior found that a mirror can help increase appetite. The researchers said that elderly people eating alone, with themselves reflected in a mirror, reported food as tasting better and ate more of it, compared to eating in front of a monitor displaying an image of a wall. When the team repeated their study with young adults, they got similar results.
“Studies have shown that for older adults, enjoying food is associated with quality of life, and frequently eating alone is associated with depression and loss of appetite,” corresponding author Nobuyuki Kawai says. “Our findings therefore suggest a possible approach to improving the appeal of food, and quality of life, for older people who do not have company when they eat–for example, those who have suffered loss or are far away from their loved ones.”
Better yet, strive to eat at least some of your own meals with the person you’re trying to help.
- Fix a pretty table: Eating in an old chair with a tray table propped up in front of you will not stimulate your appetite. Make an effort to use a real dining-room table and chair. The table should be presented for eating, not covered with old mail and flyers.
- Strive for bright-colored food: Whenever possible, incorporate bright-color fruits and vegetables that are appealing to the eye. If it looks good, it will increase appetite.
- Familiar foods: Trying to get a person who avoided McDonald’s all their life to eat Chicken McNuggets sets you up for failure. The best way to increase appetite is through meals that are familiar and comforting to the person. If the person is your parent, think about what he or she used to eat. If an Irish Stew was a family staple, then serve that, for example.
DRUG HELP TO INCREASE APPETITE?
A physician can give you a prescription for an appetite stimulant, like megestrol acetate (Megace). However, an article published in the Journal of Family Practice by Robert K Persons, DO, FAAP, and William Nichols, MLS, said that only Megace has been studied in elderly patients. The data showed limited benefit, mixed outcomes, and potential harm.
Physical Problems You Can Control
As we age, our hearing, smell, and taste all mellow. Being unable to hear a dinner conversation or enjoy the aroma the food in front of us can diminish our drive to eat. The loss of taste buds is obvious.
Teeth are easily overlooked in our strategy to increase appetite, possibly due to the cost of dentistry. In fact, the cost of food is also a factor in a lack of appetite. Some people simply can’t afford to eat.
There’s hope on the horizon: Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute found an immune system molecule that hijacks a brain circuit and reduces appetite. While it’s too soon to put this finding to practical use, it holds potential for targeting the cause of a lack of appetite.