People living with dementia may show signs of appetite loss. The diminished desire to eat may also stem from cognitive impairment or other underlying factors, such as pain or fatigue.

Dementia is a term that describes a loss of cognitive abilities, which can include thinking, memory, speech, reasoning, and other processes.

This article looks at how dementia can affect a person’s appetite. It also looks at methods to encourage someone with dementia to eat and when to contact a doctor.

A person with dementia and no appetite sitting at a dining table.Share on Pinterest
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A person’s appetite and eating disturbances may be more prominent in the late stages of dementia.

In a study from 2015, researchers compared various aspects of appetite and difficulties with eating between different types and stages of dementia. Eating difficulties can include difficulty swallowing and chewing as well as choking on food.

Their results showed that across all forms of dementia, a person’s appetite decreased. Additionally, eating disturbances, such as difficulty swallowing, increased according to the stage and severity of their condition.

In other words, someone with dementia will likely show signs of decreased appetite as the disease progresses.

A person with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, may lose their appetite for several reasons.

Eating and drinking require the use of motor areas in the brain, which coordinate muscles in the neck and throat. Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia can affect a person’s control of their chewing and swallowing.

When this occurs, a caregiver may notice the following signs:

  • coughing or choking on food as a person eats
  • refusing to swallow
  • making exaggerated tongue movements
  • clearing the throat
  • grimacing when swallowing
  • spitting out their food
  • drooling

Other potential causes of appetite loss may include:

  • Fatigue: Fatigue, or extreme tiredness, can cause a person with dementia to experience eating difficulties due to a lack of energy. This could lead to coordination and concentration issues and may lead to them giving up on eating halfway through a meal.
  • Constipation: About 25% of people with dementia experience constipation. This could lead to discomfort in the abdomen, resulting in them not wanting to eat more food and avoiding meals in general.
  • Depression: Depression may affect around 40% of people living with Alzheimer’s disease. The condition can cause a person to lose interest in eating.
  • Discomfort: In some cases, problems with a person’s gums or teeth and other complications in the mouth may make eating painful or uncomfortable.
  • Minimal physical activity: A lack of physical activity in people with dementia may lead to decreased appetite.
  • Issues with communication: If a person with dementia has trouble communicating, their refusal of food may be an attempt at communication. They may be trying to tell their caregiver that they do not like the food or are in pain when eating.

Another important contributor includes a diminished taste and sense of smell. These are common in dementia due to the degeneration of neurons in the brain.

In some cases, a caregiver or loved one can help encourage a person’s increase in appetite or eating in general.

They may need to try various methods if communication issues prevent them from knowing the exact cause of the issue.

Some suggestions for caregivers to encourage appetite in people with dementia include:

  • taking them to a dentist for regular oral checkups
  • providing smaller portions during meal times
  • offering food choices using pictures so they can pick their preferred foods
  • encouraging eating at times when the person is least likely to be tired
  • talking with a doctor about possible signs of depression
  • offering softer or pureed foods if they are having difficulty swallowing
  • serving foods that the person will enjoy instead of nutritionally balanced meals
  • not limiting dessert portions
  • serving foods with stronger flavors
  • encouraging them to help with meal prep or setting the table

It may help by encouraging the person to become involved in a group or community program that promotes regular exercise for those with dementia. Exercise can help relieve constipation and bloating and help ease mild depression, which can increase their appetite or desire to eat.

If a caregiver has concerns that a person with dementia is not eating enough, they may want to contact a doctor for advice.

A doctor can help:

  • rule out an underlying medical condition, such as dental pain, constipation, or depression
  • provide additional advice on how to ensure a person gets the nutrients they need
  • advise about supplements or vitamins

Finally, a caregiver should take an individual with dementia to speak with a doctor if they have obvious signs of malnourishment or are unable to eat.

As dementia progresses, a person’s appetite and ability to eat can start to decline. It may directly result from the disease or related conditions, such as depression, constipation, and fatigue.

A caregiver can help a person with dementia eat more with various strategies that aim to increase their ability or desire to eat.

If strategies do not work or the person shows signs of malnutrition, a caregiver should consider taking them to speak with a doctor for evaluation.