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Why your appetite may change as you age

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As you have gotten older, have you noticed your appetite change? For many older adults, a diminished sense of hunger is a natural part of aging. After all, less physical activity requires fewer calories, right? Experts say that’s true . . . but only to an extent.

Keep reading to understand age-related appetite changes, what causes them and what to do about it.

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Common causes of appetite loss among older adults

Changes in your senses

While your sense of humour may remain perfectly intact, starting in your 50s and 60s, your sense of smell and taste actually start to decline. The number of taste buds in your mouth starts to decrease as the taste buds themselves can no longer regenerate as they once did. At the same time, your sense of smell dampens, leaving foods tasting less salty, less sugary, and well, less tasty, than before. Less pleasure in eating can quickly translate into less of a desire to eat.

Dental issues

Dental issues like cracked teeth, cavities, and periodontal disease can result in inflammation, bleeding, swelling, and pain in the mouth that makes the thought of chewing much less attractive.

Dehydration

Are you drinking an adequate amount of fluids each day? A lack of appetite can actually result from dehydration along with symptoms like fatigue, irritability, confusion, low blood pressure, and dark-coloured urine. You don’t have to feel parched or lightheaded to be dehydrated either. It’s common for older adults to lose some of their sense of thirst and simply forget to drink water throughout the day.

Medications

Some types of medications can have a diminishing effect on your sense of taste, as can drug-drug interactions when someone takes more than one medication at a time. Other medications can simply suppress the sensation of hunger like some antibiotics, steroids, sleeping pills, blood pressure medications, to name a few.

Gastrointestinal changes

If you have developed gastrointestinal issues as you have gotten older, such as lactose intolerance or irritable bowel syndrome, eating the foods you once enjoyed may result in not-so-pleasant side effects like gas or diarrhoea. Avoiding trigger foods can quickly translate into skipping meals and simply not feeling hungry for food.

Depression

Upwards of 5 to 18 percent of adults over 65 in New Zealand are estimated to live with depression. This affliction can result in not only a lack of energy and feelings of sadness but in social isolation, tiredness, weight loss, and a decrease in appetite.

Medical conditions

Loss of appetite is a common symptomatic thread across a variety of medical conditions including Alzheimer’s, thyroid disorders, neck and head cancers, Parkinson’s, and salivary gland dysfunction. Some diseases like multiple sclerosis and stroke can also affect a person’s ability to safely chew and swallow food.

A waning appetite might also be the product of stressful or random mealtimes, difficulty preparing your own food, and not exercising.

Quick tips to stimulate appetite

  • Eat with friends – if the idea of dining alone puts you off eating, make an effort to combine mealtime with a social hour, asking friends over for lunch or going out and eating together.

  • Check your medication – talk to your doctor to see if any of your current medications could be affecting your appetite. If there is that possibility, find out if there is an alternative type of medicine you could take or if changing the dosage time would help.

  • Graze throughout the day – the thought of gulping down three huge meals a day might feel unappealing. Instead, graze on nutrient-dense snacks throughout the day like cheese and crackers, avocado, hummus and whole grain chips, nuts, fruit, olives, and so on.

  • Jazz up your dishes – try new combinations of spices, herbs, and flavors to enhance your dishes and spark a new appetite for something delicious. Think mashed avocado on toast with fresh mint and feta, sweet potatoes roasted with cumin, or watermelon with a spritz of lime and fresh basil.

  • See your dentist – get regular dental cleanings to make sure that gum disease or other mouth problems aren’t developing that might disrupt your normal appetite or ability to eat.

  • Go with something easy – simplify snack time with easier ways to prepare nutritious dishes you can simply heat up or blend together from ingredients (i.e., healthy soups from a can, smoothies, milkshakes, etc).

If you struggle with finding the urge to eat regularly, you’re not alone. One 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found close to 22 percent of the over 2,500 participants between the ages of 70 and 79 reported having a poor appetite. Don’t let appetite loss negatively impact your health. Try the tips above for eating more and start a conversation with your doctor.