Tackling under-nutrition in the elderly



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As we get older, the inner workings of our bodies change. One of the consequences of aging is a loss of appetite — referred to by healthcare professionals as the anorexia of aging — which can result in under-nutrition.

A new study investigating why people who are 80 or older are prone to losing weight.

The research by Mary Hickson, Professor of Dietetics at Plymouth University, found that after eating, elderly people produced a greater amount of peptide YY (PYY) — the hormone that tells humans when they're full.

The study saw six healthy women over the age of 80 eat a breakfast after several hours of fasting. Their hormone levels were then compared to those of a number of healthy younger participants in age brackets 20-39, 40-59 and 60-79.

Professor Hickson measured levels of PYY at regular time intervals for three hours in each participant alongside levels of ghrelin — the hormone that tells us when we're hungry.

Researchers had previously suggested that weight loss in the over-80s could be caused by a decrease in the production of ghrelin.

But the results showed that each of the over-80s tested produced a greater amount of PYY than their younger counterparts, while their ghrelin levels did not change.

To obtain a more accurate picture of whether this could be the case in all older people, Professor Hickson has recommended that the study be carried out on a larger number of participants of both genders, but said that, at this early stage, she was intrigued by the findings.

"We do not know how appetite control alters with aging, so this study was a necessary and promising start,” said Professor Hickson. "The difficulty we have is ensuring that all test subjects are healthy - and finding over-80s with no existing health problems was a challenge. We recognize that healthy subjects over this age are not necessarily representative of their population due to the lack of ill health, but excluding illness was necessary to test whether aging per se is associated with changes in appetite control. If further studies on a greater number of participants show an increased production of PYY, we can work to investigate this hormone imbalance to address, and hopefully combat, anorexia of aging."