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Healthy ageing: When weight loss is a red flag

Q My mother, who is 80, has lost 5kg in the past six months without trying. She is happy, as she’s always been slightly overweight. But she’s not looking well and we’re wondering, should we be worried about her?

A Unplanned weight loss (losing weight without meaning to) is more common as we get older. So many people are keen to lose weight, or maintain a healthy weight, that weight loss for any reason is often welcomed. But unplanned weight loss, especially in older people, can be a sign they’re not well and needs to be treated as a health red flag rather than celebrated.

How do we lose weight without intending to?

There are many short and long-term medical conditions that increase the body’s need for energy. And that energy comes from the food we eat, from proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

If we don’t match the increase in energy the body needs to keep it running, it will create its own additional fuel by burning fat and muscle stores, to meet its constant daily demand for energy. This is when weight loss occurs.

It’s not just how the body can use extra fuel when we’re unwell. Side effects of these conditions, or medications given to control them, may also cause unplanned weight loss. Other factors include poor appetite due to loss of taste or smell; swallowing problems and inability to eat normal-sized meals; prescribed medication causing nausea and reduced appetite; undiagnosed disease that may need further exploring; or simply a change in life style that has led to eating fewer meals.

Is unplanned weight loss anything to be alarmed about?

Unplanned weight loss is a red flag for health and, in cases of significant unplanned weight loss (more than 3kg over three months), the cause needs to be explored further.

What can be done about unplanned weight loss?

Make an appointment for a medical check up with your doctor. Make sure the doctor realises the weight loss was unplanned and discuss anything that may have contributed to it.

First published: Mar 2019
Last updated: February 14 2019
Last science review: February 14 2019



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