Surprising Facts About Anorexia Nervosa and Aging

In May 2011, my grandmother died at the age of 80. She weighed less than 80 lbs. Although none of us had been able to encourage her to eat a full meal in her later years after losing her husband, she was never diagnosed as anorexic. Over the past years she was more than once hospitalized due to a fall or injury that her emancipated body could not sustain. Even with all the doctor visits, hip surgery, and hospital time, no medical professional ever recognized the symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa that we are accustomed to seeing in teenagers.

The fact is, anorexia is not a disease that only affects young women. A surprising 78% of anorexia deaths are elderly, and it affects men as well as women. While with teenage patients we assume the disease is caused by poor self-image, the reasons in elderly are often different psychological problems, such as low enthusiasm for life, depression, a form of protest, loss of appetite caused by medication, or even economic reasons.
Anorexia is a silent disease – it is easy to disguise. Refusals to eat such as not feeling well or being full from eating earlier, are often dismissed by friends and family as legitimate excuses. Passively asking your elderly loved one if they are eating properly will often receive a positive response. So how do we diagnose, and treat, an elderly loved one suffering from Anorexia Nervosa?

Symptoms to watch for: Drastic weight loss is often noted first. This may sometimes occur in conjunction with new medications, making it easier to pass off. But if your elderly loved one denies losing too much weight, or still refuses to eat, this may be a sign of a purposeful weight loss – and intention to lose more. Making excuses not to eat, an empty fridge, or never visiting during mealtimes, are other easy to miss signs to watch for.

Eventually, the malnutrition will lead to decreased cognitive function and most elderly cases of anorexia are discovered when the person has a fall or injury. An elderly body is already more susceptible to bone injuries, and a malnourished body can have a very difficult time recovering.

Diagnosis: If your elderly loved one is hospitalized with an injury and weight loss, don’t be afraid to raise the question of anorexia with their doctor. As with teenagers, anorexia is a psychological disease and needs to be treated with counseling. Achieving a diagnosis from the doctor will allow your loved one to receive the help that they need.
Recovery: As with patients of any age suffering from anorexia, it may be a life long battle that family and friends will need to help with. Encouraging your loved one to eat, and preparing their favorite foods, will remind them of the importance of good nutrition. Sometimes medication to increase appetite may be administered.

Anorexia is a silent killer of elderly persons. Increasing awareness, and talking about the disease, will help us see the signs and make a diagnosis before its too late. If my granmother’s anorexia had been noticed years ago, I might still have her today. If you are worried about your loved one’s weight loss or appetite, don’t hesitate to talk to them about it immediately.