When thinking of dementia, we typically tend to focus on common characteristics such as memory loss, difficulty finding the right word, or disorientation. However, other challenges include those related to activities of daily functioning, such as eating or drinking, that can get more difficult as the condition progresses.
This means that a person with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are at a high risk for weight loss. The good news, however, is that there are many ways in which caregivers can help their loved ones reduce the accelerated weight loss associated with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Are dementia and weight loss related?
Weight loss is frequently seen in individuals with dementia. It may occur throughout the course of the disease but becomes significantly more common as the dementia progresses. There is also growing evidence that unexpected weight loss later in life may be an early warning sign of mental decline and the development of dementia that may precede a diagnosis.
If you’d like to understand how weight loss and dementia are related, think about how your brain and body work together. Various metabolic signals convey information about our body’s needs to the central nervous system. This type of brain-body interaction regulates how hungry or full we feel, ultimately promoting behaviors that will satisfy these needs. Simply put, your body can let your brain know when it’s hungry, and then your brain tells you to eat.
Given this, it makes sense that the effects of dementia on the brain would affect a person’s appetite, eating habits and therefore as a result, their weight. As dementia progresses, eating and drinking can also get increasingly difficult, which could further accelerate weight loss.
What can you do as a caregiver to help your loved one with dementia reduce accelerated weight loss?
The good news is that the person’s environment and their caregiver can have a positive effect on reducing weight loss associated with dementia, so there are ways you can help.
Here are some tips to try to maximize intake and reduce weight loss:
Encourage exercise to increase appetite
If a person with dementia is involved in daily exercise, their appetite could increase. Consider walks, dancing, or exercise classes.
Provide a big breakfast
Research shows that people with dementia often eat best at breakfast. Make a meal with the greatest calorie load when your loved one is most likely to eat.
Turn off the TV, make sure there are not too many noises, and keep the table clear of clutter and unnecessary items.
Put small portions on the plate
Try offering a small plate of food so that it looks less overwhelming. Try cutting the food into bite-sized pieces to make it easier to eat..
Be generous with spices
Eating and drinking can still bring people with dementia pleasure, even in later stages. Encourage them to consume foods that they enjoy. If your loved one is near you while you’re cooking, the aroma can whet their appetite. Taste buds also decrease with age and people’s ability to taste may change further due to dementia, so make the food flavorful.
Maximize self-feeding skills
It can be helpful if the food is a different color from the plate, so it can stand out to your loved one. You can also sit down with your loved one and eat together, modelling how to do it or giving gentle instructions if necessary. Make sure they’re sitting comfortably. Finger food sometimes goes a long way as well.
Provide enough snacks
More frequent, smaller meals, as well as healthy but high-calorie snacks throughout the day can be helpful.
Monitor oral status
Visit the dentist to evaluate the condition of teeth and dentures. Oral issues can contribute to weight loss, while if chewing or swallowing become painful or difficult for the person, they might stop eating.
Encourage them to keep hydrated
It’s always important to keep hydrated. Encourage adequate and tasty fluids throughout the day.
Speak to a healthcare professional
While it’s true that dementia will impact nutrition and weight loss, there are many approaches that a skilled professional or a therapist can use to stimulate appetite and self-feeding abilities. For example, treating depression and/or pain may help improve appetite. Explore your options.
When taking care of a loved one, it can be hard to figure out what you can manage yourself and when external help is needed. Take our 5 Minute Home Care quiz to assess six key areas, including eating habits, and confidently take the next step in caring for your loved one with dementia.