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17th March 2017

Getting thin doesn’t have to be a normal part of ageing

Unintentional weight loss can be a warning sign of malnutrition, which can be both a cause and consequence of serious health conditions. Malnutrition not only increases the risk of illness but can also slow down recovery from illness or surgery.

We know that decreasing malnutrition is an important goal for the older UK population. Indeed reducing the risk of malnutrition is a key part of the regulations for service providers and managers. But do older people themselves share a concern about unintentional weight loss?

Do older people themselves share a concern about unintentional weight loss?

It would appear not. A new study from The Malnutrition Task Force, an independent group of experts across health, social care and local government, has found 36% people aged 60 and over in the UK think it’s perfectly normal to lose weight as you get older.

The Malnutrition Task Force commissioned a survey of 855 people aged 60 and over at the end of February. The results revealed that far fewer older people were concerned about weight loss than obesity. Over half (54%) of older people questioned said they would be concerned about a friend or family member being very overweight.

75% of older people never worry about unintentional weight loss

The risk of becoming undernourished increases significantly as people age and this may be exacerbated by the incorrect assumption that losing weight unintentionally is a normal part of the ageing process. In contrast, it should, in fact, be considered as a warning sign of malnutrition or another serious condition. Yet the survey reported that around three quarters, 75%, say they have never worried about themselves or another older person unintentionally losing weight.

Simple indications of weight loss

The survey would suggest that those at risk of, malnutrition may be ignoring some of the simple warning signs. These include:

  • Looser jewellery e.g. rings slipping off fingers or a bracelet falling off the hand;
  • A belt needing to be tightened;
  • Clothing feeling looser;
  • Wristwatch sliding up arm;
  • Loose dentures that make it harder to eat and talk.

They may all be signs that a person is not eating enough, and we should increase awareness of such signs of unintentional weight loss because even if we cannot weigh the person, or they do not have scales, we can always check these signs quite easily.

Raising awareness in older people and their carers is important

And if the person or their carer notices these signs, they should know that it is important to raise the matter with a social or health care professional. The Patients Association report Malnutrition in the community and hospital setting found that, although Carers kept a check on diets, only 13% had sought out information about malnutrition and only 16% had weighed the person they care for. Those who had previously sought information on malnutrition were significantly more likely to weigh the person and to check that their clothes fit well.

The hope must be that the more awareness we generate to not ignore unintentional weight loss, the more we can change the myth that weight loss is merely part of the ageing process.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Science Manager, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all.

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