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Weight Loss in Seniors: What are the Dangers of Becoming Underweight?

Weight loss and Underweight in the elderly; causes, dangers, and interventions

As we age, we tend to lose weight for a number of reasons ranging from loss of appetite to illnesses to immobility.

Weight loss in seniors can be a problem because maintaining a healthy body weight is crucial. Not only to your physical health but also to your mental health. Most people associate overweight with a series of illnesses and conditions, but only a few links underweight to health problems. 

If you’re underweight or suddenly losing weight for no apparent reason, you should quickly talk to your doctor for a thorough assessment. Even if there are no underlying illnesses causing the weight loss, other things such as difficulty in chewing and loss of appetite can also contribute to underweight in seniors. 

Being underweight as a senior adult can be particularly dangerous. It increases the likelihood of illnesses and complications including bone fractures and other injuries if you fall.

"Being underweight weakens the immune system, which can leave you more susceptible to illnesses"

We will take a deeper look at some of the health consequences of being underweight as seniors and how to address them a little later, meanwhile, below are some predisposing factors of underweight in seniors. 

Weight Loss in Seniors - Why are seniors in danger of becoming underweight?

thoughtfull couple starring into the distance

Weight loss in seniors is a real problem because seniors are particularly in danger of becoming underweight. This due to a wide range of factors –some are physical while others are psychological.

"Many illnesses and health conditions, such as a flue, may cause temporary weight loss, but you will probably gain back your weight when you recover"

However, a few major conditions can cause significant weight loss and underweight. These include:

Hyperthyroidism:

Our thyroids produce a hormone known as thyroxine, which makes sure that our metabolism functions normally.

If the functioning of your thyroid gland has interfered with it, it can start to produce too much thyroxine. If this happens, your metabolism and other body functions such as temperature and heartbeat will be disturbed and you can experience significant weight loss.

Cancer:

Malignant cancer can also cause rapid weight loss, lack of appetite, tiredness, and nausea. Since cancer and malignancies can be so serious, you need to consult your doctor for a thorough examination. 

Diabetes:

Many diabetic patients tend to suffer from excessive weight loss, tiredness and sometimes weight gain. Patients showing the above symptoms need to have their blood tested to see if they suffer from diabetes. 

weight loss in seniors is worrying a senior man

There are, of course, many other illnesses that can cause excessive senior weight loss, but the above three are the biggest culprits. Furthermore, a number of psychological factors can also contribute to people losing weight and becoming underweight. The main psychological factor being depression and long-term stress. 

"Seniors who suffer from depression can experience reduced appetite and lose weight dramatically"

If you suspect that you’re depressed, you need to get clinical assistance as soon as you can. Some of the most common depression symptoms include tiredness, inability to perform simple tasks, an overpowering urge of staying in bed the whole day and flashing ideas of suicide. 

Other factors that can cause underweight in seniors

  • Enzyme deficiencies: digestive enzymes or/and stomach acid deficiencies may hamper digestion and nutrient absorption thereby causing weight loss.
  • Medication: many medications that seniors take can either cause weight loss or suppress appetite. Check the kind of medication you’re using, if any, and inquire from your doctor if they’re the culprits. 
  • Excessive exercise: if you’re under any form of exercise program, it could be that you’re exercising more than your diet can catch up with. Please check this with your personal trainer. 
  • Pain or difficulty with chewing and/or swallowing: many elderly people don’t keep up with their dental care needs for various reasons. This can lead to pain in the mouth or even lack of suitable dentures. 

As you can see, there are many reasons why seniors are in danger of becoming underweight. A 2006 publication in the Postgraduate Medical Journal identified other causes of underweight in seniors as loss of taste and smell, respiratory disorders, gastrointestinal disorders (e.g. malabsorption), neurological disorders (e.g. Parkinson’s disease), isolation/loneliness, poverty, bereavement, anxiety, constipation, and unappetizing food (1). 

Health consequences with excessive weight loss in seniors

elderly man exhibiting pain

There is a lot of focus on the effects of being overweight and obese, but very little on the health consequences of being underweight.

Having a poor nutrition and being underweight has its own array of health risks too, and this includes;

Malnutrition:

If you’re underweight, chances are you’re not eating enough foods with the right nutrients to fuel your body. This can cause malnutrition and affect your health in various ways over time. Some of the most common symptoms of malnutrition include feeling drained of energy or tired and getting sick more frequently. You’re also generally more likely to develop other health complications. 

“If you are not eating enough, changes are you are not getting the right nutrients to fuel your body!”

Decreased immune function:

A review study recently revealed a link between being overweight and increased infections. This makes more sense considering our immune system is powered by some key nutrients. More research is however required to fully understand the connection between immune function and weight (2). 

Increased risk of surgical complications:

one research study revealed that underweight patients who had a knee replacement surgery had a higher risk of developing infections after a surgery compared to patients who weren’t underweight. They concluded that underweight people might have trouble healing wounds compared to people with normal BMI (3). 

A separate study also revealed that underweight patients who had a hip replacement had more complications than patients with normal weight (4). Other studies have also pointed out higher complications following lung transplants and coronary bypass surgery in underweight people.

Skin, teeth and hair problems:

If you don’t get enough nutrients in your daily diet, things like thinning hair, poor dental health, and dry skin may worsen.

Anemia:

if you’re an underweight senior citizen, you’re more like to suffer low blood counts (anemia) which usually causes headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Anemia is common in people who don’t consume enough iron. 

Osteoporosis:

Being underweight may increase the risk for osteoporosis (fragile bone disease) and low bone mineral density. If you do not have enough calcium, there are high chances you might develop osteoporosis. 

Treatment and prevention

couple enjoying a meal together

The very first step when addressing weight loss and underweight among seniors is to identify the underlying cause and executing the necessary corrective mechanisms. If poor nutrition is the cause, you need to provide proper nutrition. In many cases, it might be difficult to treat the underlying cause, so proper nutrition becomes the first line of defense. 

The best foods for a senior diet that will help avoid underweight senior complications include fruits, whole grains, vegetables, and lean meat.

“It’s important to limit the intake of sugars, solid fats, salt, and alcoholic beverages”

Generally, replace unhealthy foods with the healthy ones and snack on foods that offer extra calories and nutrients between meals. You need to eat full at meals times, so making tasty foods can help boost your appetite. 

In some instances, the factors leading to malnutrition can be directly addressed. These include oral pain/dental issues, limited access to property nutrition, problems with chewing/swallowing, arthritis, sedentary lifestyle, and emotional distress. 

“It might be wise to work with a dietitian and/or a social worker depending on your unique needs.”

This is especially true if you’ve no obvious underlying illness or cause and if you have limited access to proper nutrition. Sedentary seniors need to inject a little physical activity in their lifestyles because exercise works as a great appetite stimulant. 

Psychological conditions such as depression, stress, and anxiety that contribute to weight loss should also be addressed to reverse the situation. Therapy, counseling and sometimes medication may be needed to reverse the effects of the mental condition. 

grandmother embracing granddaughter

Oral nutrition supplements might also come in handy for reversing or preventing weight loss. This can be a great convenience for elders who are not able to make their own meals. However, it should be noted that supplements are meant to “supplement” not replace your current meal plan. If you’ve any special condition, you might want to talk to your doctor before implanting some of these interventions.

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