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Int Psychogeriatr. 2003 Mar;15(1):73-87.

Eating habits and appetite control in the elderly: the anorexia of aging.

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  • 1Istituto di Scienza dell'Alimentazione, Universit√† di Roma La Sapienza, Rome, Italy.


Although a high prevalence of overweight is present in elderly people, the main concern in the elderly is the reported decline in food intake and the loss of the motivation to eat. This suggests the presence of problems associated with the regulation of energy balance and the control of food intake. A reduced energy intake causing body weight loss may be caused by social or physiological factors, or a combination of both. Poverty, loneliness, and social isolation are the predominant social factors that contribute to decreased food intake in the elderly. Depression, often associated with loss or deterioration of social networks, is a common psychological problem in the elderly and a significant cause of loss of appetite. The reduction in food intake may be due to the reduced drive to eat (hunger) resulting from a lower need state, or it arises because of more rapidly acting or more potent inhibitory (satiety) signals. The early satiation appears to be predominantly due to a decrease in adaptive relaxation of the stomach fundus resulting in early antral filling, while increased levels and effectiveness of cholecystokinin play a role in the anorexia of aging. The central feeding drive (both the opioid and the neuropeptide Y effects) appears to decline with age. Physical factors such as poor dentition and ill-fitting dentures or age-associated changes in taste and smell may influence food choice and limit the type and quantity of food eaten in older people. Common medical conditions in the elderly such as gastrointestinal disease, malabsorption syndromes, acute and chronic infections, and hypermetabolism often cause anorexia, micronutrient deficiencies, and increased energy and protein requirements. Furthermore, the elderly are major users of prescription medications, a number of which can cause malabsorption of nutrients, gastrointestinal symptoms, and loss of appetite. There is now good evidence that, although age-related reduction in energy intake is largely a physiologic effect of healthy aging, it may predispose to the harmful anorectic effects of psychological, social, and physical problems that become increasingly frequent with aging. Poor nutritional status has been implicated in the development and progression of chronic diseases commonly affecting the elderly. Protein-energy malnutrition is associated with impaired muscle function, decreased bone mass, immune dysfunction, anemia, reduced cognitive function, poor wound healing, delayed recovery from surgery, and ultimately increased morbidity and mortality. An increasing understanding of the factors that contribute to poor nutrition in the elderly should enable the development of appropriate preventive and treatment strategies and improve the health of older people.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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