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Getting your appetite back

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September 20th, 2011

Has your appetite gone AWOL? You re not alone. A decreased appetite is very common among older adults, and there s a wide range of health conditions that can cause it simple, treatable conditions such as a urinary tract infection or dehydration, or complex diseases like cancer, says Thomas Morris, D.O. Depression and cognitive changes are also common causes of unexplained weight loss in older people. Practically any illness can affect a previously hearty appetite. If the illness is treatable, your appetite may return when the condition is cured. But there are many chronic conditions (see sidebar) that can affect your appetite on a long-term basis. Other factors may also be responsible. Some drugs can cause a change in sense of taste or smell, gastric upset, or delayed stomach emptying any of which can affect your desire for food, says Deborah Kauffmann, R.D., L.D.N., a consulting dietitian in Baltimore, Md. Even some herbal and vitamin supplements can cause a loss of appetite, Morris says. Talk to your doctor to see if your medications can be adjusted. Aging changes may cause a diminished ability to taste or smell, Kauffmann says. Foods may not taste the same, or you may dislike something you used to enjoy. Other factors that might not necessarily affect your appetite but can affect your eating habits are dental problems or poor fitting dentures. Strangely enough, what you re eating can also make you lose your appetite. If you drink a glass of orange juice first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, it can affect your appetite all day, Morris says. Caffeine can also be a culprit, as can an erratic snacking schedule.

Reinvigorate your desire for food

Loss of appetite can cause unintentional weight loss, so regardless of why you are eating less, make sure you are getting enough nutrients to stay healthy. In some cases, you may want to choose foods that are high in calories or try nutritional supplements, Kauffmann advises. Eating small frequent meals throughout the day and eating with others can make food more appealing. You can add seasonings such as salt and spices as well as sugar and unsaturated fat as long as your doctor agrees that it won t harm your health, Kauffmann says. Some people unnecessarily restrict themselves from having foods such as desserts, Morris says. Your doctor can tell you what you can safely indulge in without aggravating your health conditions. One of the best things you can do to stimulate your appetite is to get out and move, Morris advises. There are some appetite stimulating medications available, but they may have adverse effects for many people. If you re not eating because you have difficulty getting out to shop or problems preparing foods, you can shop online, have groceries delivered, use a meal delivery service, or buy foods that are easy to prepare, Kauffmann suggests.

Could you have an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are on the rise among older adults, women in particular. Along with other bodily changes that come with age like wrinkles and gray hair, we tend to put on a few pounds. Some people have trouble accepting that, Kauffmann says. Seniors are not immune to the cultural pressures to be thin, Kauffmann says. Contrary to what many younger adults think, older adults care about how they look. It s true that eating disorders are typically first diagnosed in teenagers or younger adults, Kauffmann explains. But some people either develop symptoms in middle age or later, or never seek treatment until later in life. Life stresses can also be contributing factors such as changes in health or daily functioning, retirement issues, or the death of a spouse or close friends, Kauffmann says. Treatment can involve counseling by a mental health professional, nutritionist, and sometimes medication.

Chronic diseases that cause appetite loss

liver disease kidney failure COPD dementia depression heart failure hepatitis hypothyroidism

Types of eating disorders

According to the National Institutes of Health, there are three common eating disorders:Anorexia nervosa, in which you lose weight because you don't eat enoughBinge-eating, which is out-of-control eatingBulimia nervosa, involving periods of overeating followed by purging by either vomiting or using laxatives

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