Most of us eat too much. But elderly people sometimes eat too little, which can have dire consequences for their survival, as a study by Australian researchers at Monash University has confirmed.

In fact, a simple question about appetite can provide important insights into old people’s general health that may help reduce their risk of dying, said Emeritus Professor Mark Wahlqvist in a study published in the journal Appetite.

“Appetite is generally regarded as one of the most important indicators of health,” Professor Wahlqvist said.

The urge to eat is often reduced in the elderly, with many afflicted by the “anorexia of aging.” Chewing difficulties, general deterioration or the side-effects of medication may have an adverse effect on appetite, as may psychological factors such as loneliness or depression. Family circumstances and other environmental factors may also play a role.

Risk of mortality

“Factors of this kind lead to poor appetite and related poor health,” Wahlqvist said. “We found that elderly people with fair or poor appetites had higher risks of mortality than those with good appetites.”

The study, based on data from more than 1,800 independently living Taiwanese over the age of 65, found that those who had poor appetites consumed a less diverse diet than others, with a consequently lower intake of energy, protein, vitamins and other nutrients.

Poor appetite does not directly bring about death: it’s the resulting poor diet that causes the harm.

“Knowledge of old people’s appetite therefore has considerable potential to be useful in both clinical and community settings, and should be part of an integrated approach to diet that underpins a healthy old age,” Wahlqvist said.

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