Weight Changes In Seniors: Possible Causes And Treatments

As we grow older we are faced with an increased number of health conditions that can not only be very detrimental to our overall well-being but can, if untreated, become life-threatening as well. On opposite sides of the spectrum, we find two weight-related conditions: Obesity and involuntary weight loss. Involuntary or unintentional weight loss is fairly common amongst seniors in the USA with the annual incidence being calculated at approximately 13%. According to data from a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, more than a third of seniors over the age of 65 were obese in 2010.

Diagnosing a weight-related condition such as obesity and unintentional weight loss in a senior is not always as straightforward as it may seem. There are a plethora of possible underlying causes, necessitating a process of elimination in order to pinpoint the true culprit so that treatment can commence. By having a clearer understanding of the possible causes as well as treatment options, caregivers to the elderly can aid in a swift diagnosis being made and the senior receiving the required medical treatment and emotional support as soon as possible.

Underlying illness and mental health issues

Cancer is the leading cause of unintentional weight loss among seniors accounting for between 24% and 38% of cases. Gastrointestinal conditions such as nausea, diarrhea and early satiety together with uncontrolled or undiagnosed diabetes and hyperthyroidism can all cause involuntary weight loss in seniors as well. Other possible medical causes are Parkinson’s disease and various chronic illnesses such as congestive cardiac failure and pulmonary obstruction. Dementia can also result in weight loss as it can trigger changes in smell and taste which can decrease the general appeal of food, resulting in the senior eating less and subsequently suffering a weight loss. Weight loss is also often the primary symptom of a range of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder, all of which are fairly common among the elderly.


There are a large number of commonly-prescribed pharmaceuticals that can cause unintentional weight loss in seniors due to their wide range of side effects ranging from nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea to anorexia, xerostomia and dysosmia. Some of the most common culprits triggering these side effects are Allopurinol, calcium-channel blockers, antibiotics, Amantadine, metformin, and theophylline. Tricyclic antidepressants are also known to cause severe nausea and vomiting which prevents a senior from eating sufficient amounts of food, leading to a loss in weight.

Identifying and treating obesity in seniors

In seniors, a waist circumference is generally more accurate in detecting obesity than a BMI (body mass index) reading is although a BMI of 30 and above is still indicative of a weight problem severe enough to trigger numerous health risks.  When a senior is identified as being obese it is vital to implement a severe lifestyle intervention as soon as possible. In most cases, the intervention will consist of the implementation of a healthy diet and mild exercise. While drug therapy and Bariatric surgery are both viable options in terms of obesity treatment they are only usually employed once lifestyle changes have been actioned and have failed.

Sudden and sustained weight changes in the elderly can pose grave dangers and need to be identified and treated as soon as possible. Weighing a senior on a regular basis and being alert in terms of visual cues such as a sallow or bloated complexion and loose- or tight fitting clothes can enable a speedy diagnosis which, in turn, can save the life and improve the overall well-being of a beloved senior.

By Lucy Wyndham

Image: iebrig Krakau

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