How Much Is Normal and When Should a Caregiver Be Concerned?
Weight loss and gain are a normal part of life. During particular phases--puberty, pregnancy, illness, stress, athletic training, and more--our bodies self-regulate to various weights, most of which are perfectly healthy and not cause for much concern. Yet as seniors age, there is a tendency toward weight loss that can be concerning for caregivers charged with a loved one's health.
Seniors who lose significant weight are at risk for a host of health complications, including infection, depression, and even death. Such weight losses typically are caused by diseases (or even treatments) that are pre-existing, and can help alert caregivers to a health concern before a doctor's appointment arrives.
What are some of the causes of unintentional weight loss in the elderly? Depression, cancer, heart disease, and medications may be causes, among others. Seniors are more at risk for these causes if they live in a long-term care facility, do not receive frequent and adequate healthcare checkups, or have a family history of any of these causes. Physicians regularly check their patients' weights and look for significant trends up or down, and so should be able to identify risk factors and negative trends.
Some changes in weight are normal and can be perfectly benign.Unless caused by serious illnesses or health complications, weight loss does not necessarily herald bad news. Some medications simply cause a decreased appetite, for example, or nausea. If it is manageable and seniors can get adequate nutrition, then there is no cause for alarm.A doctor can track weight and perform blood tests to ensure that a senior is getting enough of all necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. If weight loss becomes significant, however, and especially if it is rapid, it can indicate serious issues.
How to Help
A doctor should always be involved in healthcare-related decisions, and a doctor can work very well in conjunction with caregivers to solve the problem of unintentional weight loss in seniors. The current framework prescribed by the medical community is to identify underlying causes and treat those, and then to give nutritional support in whatever form works best for seniors and their caregivers. This might include nutritional supplements like Ensure or protein powders or a specific diet plan that is higher in calories and protein.
Treating underlying conditions can be more complicated than supporting better nutrition. Seniors in long-term care facilities are at a higher risk for depression, which may cause loss of appetite. Changes in medication can unmask other emotional and mental disorders, like anxiety, which can also cause changes in eating patterns. Stress can also cause weight fluctuation. Getting frequent mental and emotional checkups with a counselor or therapist can help identify these conditions, and personal observation can also help. Major changes in behavior, eating habits, and mobility can raise red flags concerning these types of conditions, and caregivers are often the first line of defense against them. Caregivers do well to take social withdrawal, isolation, and mood changes seriously and have elderly loved ones seen by a doctor, especially if weight loss becomes a concern.
The fact of the matter is that weight loss changes happen naturally and may not be a cause for alarm for caregivers of seniors. The line is drawn when doctors and caregivers see it threatening the senior's health, or as a symptom of something more serious. Weight loss can cause real health consequences, such as weakness, sagging skin (which leaves room for infection and injury), and may even put bone health at risk, since heavier people tend to have stronger bones. Muscle loss is exacerbated by rapid weight loss, which can cause serious obstacles to maintaining mobility and independence for seniors. Taking it seriously and talking to doctors about any concerning changes can prevent these negative consequences from taking place. As with many ailments, early detection and treatment for underlying causes of weight loss give the best chances of recovery.
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