Anorexia is a medical term that means lack of appetite but sometimes it occurs for psychological reasons that leads to significant weight loss. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where a person eats significant less than what is needed by their body to maintain health. It is a well known eating disorder that is more common in teenage girls but anorexia nervosa can occur in an age group, even the elderly. This type of eating disorder is by far more common in women than men. The risk with anorexia nervosa in the elderly is that it often has a worse outlook and accounts for more cases of fatalities than anorexia nervosa in teenagers.
The cause of anorexia nervosa is not known in every instance. It often accompanies depression particularly in older age groups but there is some evidence to suggest a genetic component. In young girls the influence of the media and perception that beauty is associated with being very thin may also contribute to anorexia nervosa. In the elderly this is not as common a cause or contributing factor.
Apart from depression for no specific reasons, there is also the emotional stresses such as death of a partner and alienation from family and friends are other common contributing factors especially in seniors. Depression as a result of chronic diseases and growing older may also affect normal eating habits in the elderly. Medication can contribute to depressive states but when it causes loss of appetite, it is not anorexia nervosa.
Apart from appearing significantly underweight, there are various signs and symptoms that may be associated with malnutrition. This includes :
These signs and symptoms do not specifically indicate anorexia nervosa and especially in the elderly who may have a host of chronic diseases. The effects of anorexia nervosa may worsen the symptoms of these chronic diseases which can also be misleading. Furthermore the side effects of certain medication may also cause some of these symptoms. The input of loved ones and caregivers is often a more reliable indication of an eating disorder as it will be noted that the person denies being hungry, refuses food and although uncommon with elderly anorexics, may undertake some form of purging like excessive laxative use.
While depression can be treated with medication, the focus of treatment should revolve around psychotherapy. Nutritional supplements may be necessary to treat deficiencies and in severe malnutrition, hospitalization and parenteral feeding may be necessary. Anorexia nervosa in the elderly is associated with serious complications especially if there is pre-existing diseases and the medication regimen has been compromised. It is more likely to lead to death.
Treatment therefore needs to be commenced as soon as the eating disorder is identified and overlooked by medical professionals. It is important for family and friends to be supportive and understand that anorexia nervosa is not merely a person being stubborn and refusing to eat but a mental disorder. Attempting to force feed an anorexic or being aggressive with the person can worsen the condition.