Aging occurs as a result of the effect of the buildup of a wide variety of cell damage over time resulting in a gradual decline in both physical and mental capacity. Other factors such as changing the environment, retiring from work, or even losing a loved one may also contribute to aging. Although our society uses the arbitrary age of 65 years to define the transition point between middle age and old age, growing “old” happens day by day, with changes occurring gradually over time. One of the physiological changes is loss of appetite. About 15 to 30 percent of older adults experience a decline in appetite. Changes that arise from aging can have an effect on the sense of taste, smell, vision causing a decreased desire for food.
Possible factors affecting the feeding habits of the elderly
Various factors contribute to the feeding habits of the aged. Such factors can either be physiological, psychosocial, or even pharmacological changes.
1. Sensory changes: The smell and sight of food stimulate appetite while the taste makes a meal enjoyable and promotes appetite at mealtime. These tend to diminish with age and may make eating less enjoyable. Also, failing eyesight can make shopping and cooking difficult leading to reduced food intake.
2. Difficulty in swallowing: The muscular contraction that initiates swallowing gradually declines with age and increases the pharyngeal transit time.
3. Changes in the Gastrointestinal tract: As you age, the intestinal wall loses strength and elasticity, and the secretion of gastrointestinal hormones changes resulting in slow bowel movement and constipation. The constant feeling of fullness may suppress appetite Also, atrophic gastritis, a condition characterized . by an inflamed stomach, bacterial overgrowth, and reduced or lack of stomach acid can impair digestion and cause malabsorption of some nutrients such as vitamin B12, but also biotin, folate, calcium, iron, and zinc.
4. Oral health: Older adults have a higher risk of poor oral health as they advance in age. Poor dentition and chewing difficulties may cause older adults to have less desire for foods. Poor oral health is most common in weak and delicate adults. Also, decreased saliva production which results in a dry mouth can reduce appetite for food.
5. Certain illnesses: Acute illnesses or infections can hold a grip on the desire to eat. Some chronic illnesses also like cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary diseases, kidney problems, liver diseases, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer associated with the elderly affect their appetite.
7. Medications: Some medications may alter the sense of taste and result in a lack of appetite. This may make food less palatable and reduce appetite in older adults. Other side effects of drugs that may also impact nutritional status include nausea, dry mouth, diarrhea, and/or vomiting.
8. Metabolism: Older people tend to lose bone and muscle and gain body fat. Many of these changes occur because some hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism become less active with age. Also, most older adults become less active as they age, this further reduces the rate at which they burn food, hence the reduced urge to eat.
9. Depression: Depression is a state of mental imbalance common amongst the elderly. This state has been known to impair appetite in the older population. Living alone without having any form of support or care from loved ones may affect the mental health of older adults and reduce the desire to shop, cook or eat.
The Risks Associated with Loss of Appetite
A decline in the desire for food experienced during aging can put older adults at risk of poor nutrient intake, increased risk of weight loss, and nutritional deficiencies. Also, the elderly are prone to an increased risk of infection due to a decline in immune function making them susceptible to having various infections and diseases.
Tips on Improving Appetite in Older Adults
1. A little touch of flavor and food plating
Adding a bit of color and spices to meals or trying new and delicious recipes can help stimulate appetite. Also, consider nice and attractive ways of serving and plating meals to aid acceptance. This usually requires the help of a caregiver.
2. Run a check on oral health
Proper oral health care can be very helpful in reducing discomfort. Signs that your elderly one is due for an oral health check-up include dry mouth, difficulty eating, and pain or soreness in the mouth. It is also recommended that older adults go for a dental checkup at least once a year. Regular intake of water and fruits can also help to prevent dry mouth.
3. Make changes to diet
This is especially important for those with tooth loss or having swallowing difficulty. Opt for softly cooked meals and smoothies. It is however important to choose foods that are nutrient-dense to ensure optimal nutrients intake. Also giving small but frequent meals may be helpful in increasing food intake.
4. Re-evaluate medications
Speak with your doctor about the effect of certain drugs on your appetite. A change of medication (if there are other options), may improve your appetite.
5. Make mealtime social time
Create lovely memories with older adults by eating and having fun with them. This gives them a sense of belonging, reduces depression, and makes them look forward to every mealtime.
6. Engage in exercises
Exercises can help address constipation or depression experienced in the elderly. Engaging in exercises like; taking walks, running, jogging, swimming, yoga and dancing can play a vital role in improving the quality of life of the elderly ones
7. Dietary Supplements
Some liquid macro and micronutrient supplements may be beneficial in preventing malnutrition. This should be taken alongside a carefully planned healthy diet and not as meal replacements. Speak with your doctor or dietitian should you decide to go on nutrients supplements.
Poor appetite associated with aging may result in malnutrition and compromised immune functions. Making a few dietary changes or seeking dietary management from a registered dietitian can be very helpful in managing and preventing the risk of nutritional deficiencies and unintended weight loss.
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