Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care:
AGEING: BIOLOGY AND NUTRITION: Edited by Tommy Cederholm and John E. Morley
Pathophysiology of the anorexia of aging
Morley, John E.
Division of Geriatric Medicine, Saint Louis University School of Medicine, St Louis, Missouri, USA
Correspondence to John E. Morley, MB, BCh, Division of Geriatric Medicine, Saint Louis University School of Medicine, 1402 S. Grand Blvd., M238 St Louis, MO 63104, USA. Tel: +1 314 977 8462; e-mail: email@example.com
Purpose of review: Anorexia represents a major problem for older persons leading to weight loss, sarcopenia, functional decline, and mortality. There is increasing information on the pathophysiological mechanisms that lead to anorexia.
Recent findings: Increasing evidence has shown the importance of gastrointestinal hormones (ghrelin, cholecystokinin, and glucagon-like peptide) and adipokines in producing the anorexia of aging. Numerous neurotransmitters have been shown to be involved in this aging anorexia, but evidence in humans is lacking.
Summary: The early recognition of anorexia of aging is important to allow intervention and prevent functional deterioration in older persons. Screening tests for anorexia have been developed. New approaches to managing anorexia are being tested.
The concept of the anorexia of aging as a physiology occurrence to allow adaptation to the decrease of energy expenditure and loss of muscle mass that occurs with aging was first described in 1988 . The extension of this concept was that this physiological anorexia made older persons who developed a variety of diseases, particularly vulnerable to developing severe anorexia and weight loss . A recent European study suggested that the anorexia of aging was present in 21.2% of persons over 65 years of age [3▪]. The physiological anorexia in older persons occurs to a greater degree in men than women. In addition, the anorexia of aging itself plays a role in the development of sarcopenia and frailty [4–7]. In older persons, anorexia and the subsequent weight loss have been epidemiologically associated with a variety of poor outcomes, including hip fracture, impaired physical function, institutionalization, and increased mortality [8–10]. This appears to be true even in moderately obese individuals and has been termed the ‘obesity paradox’ [11,12]. There are numerous factors involved in the anorexia of aging and this article will explore recent studies attempting to delineate the causes of the anorexia of aging.
THE SENSORY SYSTEM
Food represents a major sensory delight for humans. The enjoyment of food involves its visual presentation, smell, and taste, as well as its ability to relieve hunger. Olfactory function declines most dramatically with age . This is due to a reduction in mucus secretion, thinning of the epithelium, and a decline in the regeneration of olfactory receptor cells . Medications are particularly likely to increase dysgeusia when there is inhibition of the cytochrome P450 metabolism system and the efflux transporter P-glycoprotein. Drugs then alter taste through the intravascular taste system . Visual impairment occurs both from age-related decline in vision and due to diseases such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
Overall changes in sensory function result in a relatively small decrease in food intake, but over a number of years this can result in an appreciable weight loss . Taste enhancers have been found to have a small effect on reversing the anorexia of aging . Enhancement of the dining room and food presentation has been shown to improve food intake in nursing homes, attesting to the importance of vision as a sensation playing a role in appetite . Buffet dining and the use of snack carts and ice-cream parlors have also improved food intake. With aging, changes in food preferences and choices appear to be influenced more by social forces than by sensory changes .
THE GASTROINTESTINAL TRACT AND SATIATION
The involvement of the gastrointestinal tract in producing satiation involves antral stretch, the rate of gastric emptying, the release of gastrointestinal hormones, and feedback to the central nervous system, through the ascending fibers of the central nervous system. Older persons have a delay in gastric emptying when they ingest large meals . This delay in gastric emptying is associated with an increase in satiation in older compared to younger persons. In addition, aging is associated with a decrease in fundal compliance leading to more rapid antral filling and increased central stretch . This decrease in fundal compliance is due to a decrease in fundal relaxation to nitric oxide with aging . When the stomach is bypassed by utilizing an intraduodenal tube, food has less of a satiating effect in older persons . Liquids are rapidly emptied from the stomach without producing significant antral stretch. For this reason, it has been demonstrated that oral liquid supplements given at least an hour before the meal result in greater food intake in older persons .
Animal studies have suggested that gastrointestinal hormones have a greater satiation effect in older animals [24▪]. In older humans, cholecystokinin (CCK) levels have been found to be elevated at baseline and after a meal compared to levels found in younger individuals [25,26]. The elevation of CCK has not been found in all studies . It has been suggested that this is dependent on the volume of food ingested. CCK infusion has a greater satiation effect in older than in younger persons .
Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) is a potent anorexic hormone that also slows gastric emptying [28,29]. A high fat meal that produced more satiation in older persons also increased GLP-1 levels more than those in younger persons . Other gastrointestinal hormones that produce satiation still need to be studied to provide comparisons between the effects on satiation in young and old persons.
Ghrelin is a gastrointestinal hormone that is produced from the fundus of the stomach. It releases growth hormone from the pituitary and it stimulates feeding by activating nitric oxide synthase in the hypothalamus . A number of studies have examined the effect of aging on ghrelin. In general, these studies suggest a small decrease in ghrelin levels in older compared to younger persons [32,33]. The active ghrelin (acetylated) levels tend to be lower than deacetylated ghrelin in older persons . The recovery of ghrelin following a meal is less pronounced in older compared to younger persons . The expected increased ghrelin levels in malnourished older persons are not present [33,34], although they also show less suppression following a preload .
The different responses of the gastrointestinal tract to food in aging are summarized in Fig. 1. Overall, these effects lead to greater satiation by increasing antral stretch, increasing the satiation hormones CCK and GLP-1, and decreasing the levels of the orexigenic hormone, ghrelin. These findings strongly support that changes in the gastrointestinal response to food play a role in producing the physiological anorexia of aging [35▪].
ADIPOKINES AND APPETITE
With aging, there tends to be an increase in adiposity. This leads to an increase in tumor necrosis factor alpha and other proinflammatory cytokines. Cytokines lead to anorexia. Cytokine levels are even more elevated in chronically ill persons, most of whom have some levels of cachexia [36,37]. Chronic low-grade inflammation in older persons leads to increased tryptophan levels [38▪]. This leads to an increased anorexia via serotonin activation.
Leptin is a hormone produced from adipocytes. Leptin decreases food intake. Fasting leptin levels are higher in older compared to younger persons . Elevated leptin levels are associated with weight loss in older persons . Older men tend to have a reduction in testosterone levels . Testosterone reduces leptin levels, explaining the elevated leptin levels and the greater anorexia of aging present in older men. Leptin levels are decreased in cachexia . However, this fall in leptin fails to increase appetite, most probably due to accompanying hypertriglyceridemia producing leptin resistance .
Elevated leptin and cytokines in older persons are seen in association with increased adiposity and play a role in the development of the anorexia of aging.
CENTRAL REGULATION OF APPETITE
Within the central nervous system, appetite is controlled by the interaction of a number of hypothalamic nuclei, that is, ventromedial hypothalamic nucleus (satiety center), the lateral hypothalamic area (hunger center), and the arcuate nucleus. These hypothalamic nuclei interact with other brain areas such as the amygdala and the nucleus tractus solitarius. Over 50 neurotransmitters interact within these nuclei to modulate the feeding drive. These neurotransmitters either increase food intake (orexigens) or decrease food intake (anorexics). Our knowledge of the effects of aging on the appetite regulatory system is predominantly based on studies in old rodents [43,44]. The changes in central neurotransmitters seen with aging are summarized in Table 1. As can be seen from the table, there is, in general, a decrease in mRNA, content, and responsiveness in orexigenic neurotransmitters. Although less data is available for anorexic neurotransmitters, they tend to go in the opposite direction. These findings are displayed graphically in Fig. 2.
The available data for central regulation in humans are very limited. Whereas in animals there is a clear decrease in the orexigenic effect of the kappa opioid peptide, dynorphin , no effect on opioid antagonism of feeding could be demonstrated in humans . In contrast, the diminished role of opioids in thirst with aging could be demonstrated in humans .
PATHOLOGY AND THE ANOREXIA OF AGING
The pathological causes of the anorexia of aging can be broadly divided into psychosocial and medical [24▪]. Recently, Ramic et al.[45▪] showed that loneliness played a role in producing anorexia and malnutrition. Depression is the most common cause of anorexia in older persons both in the community and in institutions [46–49]. The depression-related anorexia is most probably related to the increase in the potent anorectic neurotransmitter, corticotrophin-releasing hormone, which is increased in persons with depression . Late life paranoia results in a decrease of food intake because of the fear of being poisoned. Persons with dementia may increase their food intake early in the disease process but show dramatic increases at the end of the disease course. Anorexia tardive is similar to anorexia nervosa and occurs in older persons who have weight restricted all their life.
Medications play a major role in decreasing food intake in older persons . This effect can be magnified in persons with polypharmacy . Swallowing problems (dysphagia), particularly when associated with aspiration, can lead to a decrease in food intake. Dental problems can lead to a small decrease in food intake. Infections, for example, Helicobacter pylori, tuberculosis, or recurrent urinary tract infections produce anorexia due to elevated cytokines. Cholecystitis is also a cause of anorexia. Persons with Parkinson's disease or functional deterioration find it difficult to feed themselves. It takes up to 45 min to appropriately feed a resident of a nursing home. Therapeutic diets have been demonstrated to decrease food intake and to not be efficacious in improving outcomes in older persons . Inability to shop or prepare food will lead to a chronic anorexia. Chronic conditions such as congestive heart failure (cardiac cachexia) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as well as cancer can also present with anorexia.
MANAGEMENT OF ANOREXIA
Based on the high prevalence of anorexia, all older persons should be screened for anorexia, utilizing a simple tool such as the Simplified Nutritional Assessment Questionnaire (SNAQ), which has been shown to have excellent predictive ability of future weight loss and protein energy malnutrition [53,54▪]. Supplementation with a high-quality essential amino acid mix appears to decrease weight loss and improve function even in persons with cachexia [55,56]. In all persons with anorexia, a careful clinical review should be done to try to detect treatable conditions. To date, orexigenic drugs, such as megestrol acetate  or dronabinol , have not proven to have major clinical benefits. Ghrelin agonists and other drugs are being developed to treat anorexia and associated weight loss but are not yet commercially available .
The anorexia of aging has been identified as a true geriatric syndrome. It has both physiological age-related causes and pathological causes. Anorexia in older persons should be identified and vigorously treated as it has a variety of deleterious effects in older persons.
No outside funding was received for the writing of this article.
Conflicts of interest
J.E.M. serves as a consultant for Danone and Sanofi-Aventis and has a research grant from Purina (Nestle).
REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READING
Papers of particular interest, published within the annual period of review, have been highlighted as:
▪ of special interest
▪▪ of outstanding interest
Additional references related to this topic can also be found in the Current World Literature section in this issue (p. 111).
1. Morley JE, Silver AJ. Anorexia of the elderly. Neurobiol Aging 1988; 9:9–16.
2. Morley JE. Anorexia, weight loss, and frailty. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2010; 11:225–228.
3▪. Donini LM, Dominguez LJ, Barbagallo M, et al. Senile anorexia in different geriatric settings in Italy. J Nutr Health Aging 2011; 15:775–781.
A study of 526 persons over the age of 65 years found anorexia was present in 21.2% with the highest prevalence in hospitalized and institutionalized patients.
4. Morley JE. Developing novel therapeutic approaches to frailty. Curr Pharm Des 2009; 15:3384–3395.
5. Abellan van Kan G, Rolland YM, Morley JE, Vellas B. Frailty: toward a clinical definition. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2008; 9:71–72.
6. Fielding RA, Vellas B, Evans WJ, et al. Sarcopenia: an undiagnosed condition in older adults. Current consensus definition: prevalence, etiology, and consequences. International working group on sarcopenia. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2011; 12:249–256.
7. Morley JE, Abbatecola AM, Argiles JM, et al. Society on Sarcopenia, Cachexia and Wasting Disorders Trialist WorkshopSarcopenia with limited mobility: an international consensus. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2011; 12:403–409.
8. Morley JE. Weight loss in older persons: new therapeutic approaches. Curr Pharm Design 2007; 13:3637–3647.
9. Landi F, Russo A, Liperoti R, et al. Anorexia, physical function, and incident disability among the frail elderly population: results from the ilSIRENTE study. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2010; 11:268–274.
10. Cornali C, Franzoni S, Frisoni GB, Trabucchi M. Anorexia as an independent predictor of mortality. J Am Geriatr Soc 2005; 53:354–355.
11. Bales CW, Buhr G. Is obesity bad for older persons? A systematic review of the pros and cons of weight reduction in later life. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2008; 9:302–312.
12. Kalantar-Zadeh K, Horwich TB, Oreopoulos A, et al. Risk factor paradox in wasting diseases. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2007; 10:433–442.
13. Schumm LP, McClintock M, Williams S, et al. Assessment of sensory function in the national social life, health, and aging project. J Gerontol Soc Sci 2009; 64 (S1):i76–i85.
14. Welge-Lüssen A. Ageing, neurodegeneration, and olfactory and gustatory loss. BENT 2009; 5 (Supp 13):129–132.
15. Schiffman SS. Effects of aging on the human taste system. Ann NY Acad Sci 2009; 1170:725–729.
16. Morley JE. Anorexia and weight loss in older persons. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2003; 58:131–137.
17. Essed NH, Oerlemans P, Hoek M, et al. Optimal preferred MSG concentration in potatoes, spinach and beef and their effect on intake in institutionalized elderly people. J Nutr Health Aging 2009; 13:769–775.
18. Nijs K, de Graaf C, van Staveren WA, de Groot LC. Malnutrition and mealtime ambiance in nursing homes. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2009; 10:226–229.
19. Koehler J, Leonhaeuser IU. Changes in food preferences during aging. Ann Nutr Metab 2008; 52 (Suppl 1):15–19.
20. Brogna A, Loreno M, Catalano F, et al. Radioisotopic assessment of gastric emptying of solids in elderly subjects. Aging Clin Exp Res 2006; 18:493–496.
21. Sturm K, Parker B, Wishart J, et al. Energy intake and appetite are related to antral area in healthy young and older subjects. Am J Clin Nutr 2004; 80:656–667.
22. Smits GJ, Lefebvre RA. Influence of age on the signal transduction pathway of nonadrenergic noncholinergic neurotransmitters in the rat gastric fundus. Br J Pharmacol 1995; 114:640–647.
23. Wilson MMG, Purushothaman R, Morley JE. Effect of liquid dietary supplements on energy intake in the elderly. Am J Clin Nutr 2002; 75:944–947.
24▪. Morley JE. Anorexia of aging: a true geriatric syndrome. J Nutr Health Aging 2012; 16:422–425.
This is a mini-review updating discussion of the role of the anorexia of aging as a true geriatric syndrome.
25. Tai K, Feinle-Bisset C, Horowitz M, et al. Effects of nutritional supplementation on the appetite and energy intake responses to IV cholecystokinin in older adults. Appetite 2010; 55:473–477.
26. Sturm K, MacIntosh CG, Parker BA, et al. Appetite, food intake, and plasma concentrations of cholecystokinin, ghrelin, and other gastrointestinal hormones in undernourished older women and well nourished young and older women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2003; 88:3747–3755.
27. Serra-Prat M, Palomera E, Clave P, Puig-Domingo M. Effect of age and frailty on ghrelin and cholecystokinin responses to a meal test. Am J Clin Nutr 2009; 89:1410–1417.
28. Landi F, Laviano A, Cruz-Jentoft AJ. The anorexia of aging: is it a geriatric syndrome? J Am Med Dir Assoc 2010; 11:153–156.
29. Lee A, Patrick P, Wishart J, et al. The effects of miglitol on glucagon-like peptide-1 secretion and appetite sensations in obese type 2 diabetics. Diabetes Obes Metab 2002; 4:329–335.
30. Di Francesco V, Barazzoni R, Bissoli L, et al. The quantity of meal fat influences the profile of postprandial hormones as well as hunger sensation in healthy elderly people. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2010; 11:188–193.
31. Gaskin FS, Farr SA, Banks WA, et al. Ghrelin-induced feeding is dependent on nitric oxide. Peptides 2003; 24:913–918.
32. Schneider SM, Al-Jaouni R, Caruba C, et al. Effects of age, malnutrition and refeeding on the expression and secretion of ghrelin. Clin Nutr 2008; 27:724–731.
33. Serra-Pratt M, Fernandez X, Burdoy E, et al. The role of ghrelin in the energy homeostasis of elderly people: a population-based study. J Endocrinol Invest 2007; 30:484–490.
34. Rigamonti AE, Pincelli AI, Corrà B, et al. Plasma ghrelin concentrations in elderly subjects: comparison with anorexic and obese patients. J Endocrinol 2002; 175:R1–5.
35▪. Moss C, Dhillo WS, Frost G, Hickson M. Gastrointestinal hormones: the regulation of appetite and the anorexia of ageing. J Hum Nutr Diet 2012; 25:3–15.
An in-depth review of the role of gastrointestinal hormones in the regulation of appetite. It concludes that an increase in CCK and a decrease in ghrelin play a key role in the anorexia of aging.
36. Donini LM, Savina C, Piredda M, et al. Senile anorexia in acute-ward and rehabilitations settings. J Nutr Health Aging 2008; 12:511–517.
37. Argiles JM, Anker SD, Evans WJ, et al. Consensus on cachexia syndrome. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2010; 11:229–230.
38▪. Capuron L, Schoecksnadel S, Feart C, et al. Chronic low-grade inflammation in elderly persons is associated with altered tryptophan and tyrosine metabolism: role in neuropsychiatric symptoms. Biol Psychiatry 2011; 70:175–182.
Aging is associated with an increase in interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein. This increase leads to an increase in tryptophan. The increase in tryptophan is associated with a reduction in motivation, tiredness, and anorexia.
39. Di Francesco V, Zamboni M, Zoico E, et al. Unbalanced serum leptin and ghrelin dynamics prolong postprandial satiety and inhibit hunger in healthy elderly: another reason for the ‘anorexia of aging’. Am J Clin Nutr 2006; 83:1149–1152.
40. Wang C, Nieschlag E, Swerdloff R, et al. Investigation, treatment and monitoring of late-onset hypogonadism in males: ISA, ISSAM, EAU, EAA and ASA recommendations. Eur J Endocrinol 2008; 159:507–514.
41. Smiechowska J, Utech A, Taffet G, et al. Adipokines in patients with cancer anorexia and cachexia. J Investig Med 2010; 58:554–559.
42. Banks WA, Coon AB, Robinson SM, et al. Triglycerides induce leptin resistance at the blood-brain barrier. Diabetes 2004; 53:1253–1260.
43. Kmeic Z. Central regulation of food intake in ageing. J Physiol Pharmacol 2006; 57 (Suppl 6):7–16.
44. Kmeic Z. Aging and peptide control of food intake. Curr Protein Pept Sci 2011; 12:271–279.
45▪. Ramic E, Pranjic N, Batic-Mujanovic O, et al. The effect of loneliness on malnutrition in elderly population. Med Arh 2011; 65:92–95.
Persons living alone are more likely to have a loss of appetite, lower body mass index, and be at increased risk of malnutrition.
46. White HK, McConnell ES, Bales CW, Kuchibhatla M. A 6-month observational study of the relationship between weight loss and behavioral symptoms in institutionalized Alzheimer's disease subjects. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2004; 5:89–97.
47. Lattanzio F, Laino I, Pedone C, et al. Geriatric conditions and adverse drug reactions in elderly hospitalized patients. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2012; 13:96–99.
48. Morley JE. Depression in nursing home residents. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2010; 11:301–303.
49. Thakur M, Blazer DG. Depression in long-term care. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2008; 9:82–87.
50. Visvanathan R, Chapman IM. Undernutrition and anorexia in the older person. Gastroenterol Clin North Am 2009; 38:393–409.
51. Fitzgerald SP, Bean NG. An analysis of the interactions between individual comorbidities and their treatments: implications for guidelines and polypharmacy. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2010; 11:475–484.
52. Morley JE. Undernutrition: a major problem in nursing homes. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2011; 12:243–246.
53. Wilson MM, Thomas Dr, Rubenstein LZ, et al. Appetite assessment: simple appetite questionnaire predicts weight loss in community-dwelling adults and nursing home residents. Am J Clin Nutr 2005; 82:1074–1081.
54▪. Rolland Y, Perrin A, Gardette V, et al.
Screening older people at risk of malnutrition or malnourished using the Simplified Nutritional Appetite Questionnaire (SNAQ): a comparison with the Mini-Nutritional Assessment (MNA) tool. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2012; 13:31–34.
SNAQ and the Mini-Nutritional Assessment (MNA) identify different populations. SNAQ can identify those at risk for weight loss earlier than MNA.
55. Morley JE, Argiles JM, Evans WJ, et al. Society for Sarcopenia, Cachexia and Wasting Disease. Nutritional recommendations for the management of sarcopenia. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2010; 11:391–396.
56. van Wetering CR, Hoogendoorn M, Broekhuizen R, et al. Efficacy and costs of nutritional rehabilitation in muscle-wasted patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in a community-based setting: a prespecified subgroup analysis of the INTERCOM trial. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2010; 11:179–187.
57. Yeh SS, Lovitt S, Schuster MW. Pharmacological treatment of geriatric cachexia: evidence and safety in perspective. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2007; 8:363–377.
58. Wilson MM, Philpot C, Morley JE. Anorexia of aging in long term care: is dronabinol an effective appetite stimulant? – a pilot study. J Nutr Health Aging 2007; 11:195–198.
anorexia; cachexia; cholecystokinin; ghrelin; leptin
© 2013 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
What does "Remember me" mean?
By checking this box, you'll stay logged in until you logout. You'll get easier access to your articles, collections,
media, and all your other content, even if you close your browser or shut down your
To protect your most sensitive data and activities (like changing your password),
we'll ask you to re-enter your password when you access these services.
What if I'm on a computer that I share with others?
If you're using a public computer or you share this computer with others, we recommend
that you uncheck the "Remember me" box.
Highlight selected keywords in the article text.
Data is temporarily unavailable. Please try again soon.
Readers Of this Article Also Read