Older Adults

Unintended Weight Loss in Older Adults

May 18, 2018   /




Reviewed and updated by Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, LDN and Mary Ellen Posthauer, RD, CD, LD


Older adults are at increased risk for weight loss and malnutrition, and they should be monitored closely. The following tips will help to reduce complications related to unintended weight loss.


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Weigh older individuals often

Older adults can lose weight for many reasons, including:

  • Mental changes
  • Physical problems that make eating more difficult
  • Medications that decrease appetite or make food taste different
  • Certain medical problems


Know who is at risk for weight loss

The risk for unintended weight loss is greatest for those who:

  • Need help eating and drinking
  • Eat less than half of their food
  • Have mouth pain or teeth/denture problems
  • Have trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Cough or choke when eating
  • Seem depressed
  • Are confused and wander or pace
  • Have diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer, or human immunodeficiency disease (HIV)


Prevent weight loss

You sometimes can stop or slow weight loss by:

  • Requesting a speech therapist consult to evaluate food texture
  • Individualizing or liberalizing the diet
  • Serving meals to a quieter place or eating with other people
  • Requesting the doctor to assess the need for a medication to treat depression
  • Serving nutrient dense or, fortified drinks and foods
  • Offering nutritional supplements at bedtime  


Consider these suggestions

Even if a person is overweight, losing weight without trying is not good, and may be a sign of a more serious problem.

  • Caregivers should never force someone to eat
  • If considering tube feeding, discuss the risk and benefits with the patient, their family, and physician
  • For some people, refusing food and liquid is a natural part of the end-of-life process, which caregivers must respect and accept


References and recommended readings

  1. Dorner B, Friedrich, EK, Postion of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics : individualized nutrition approaches for older adults:long -term care,post-acute, and other settings. J Acad Nutri Diet . 2018;118(4):724-735.
  2. Gaddey HL, Holder K. Unintentional weight loss in older adults. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89(9):718-722.
  3. Niedert KC, Unintended weight loss. in: Nutrition Care of the Older Adult. 3rd edition, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago, IL.2016.


Current review date: 5/18/18

Previous review date: 10/10