Failure to Thrive in Elderly Adults

Updated: Aug 28, 2020
  • Author: Nadia Ali, MD, MPH, MBBS, ABHIM, FACP; Chief Editor: Jasvinder Chawla, MD, MBA  more...
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Failure to thrive in elderly persons is defined by The Institute of Medicine as weight loss of more than 5%, decreased appetite, poor nutrition, and physical inactivity, often associated with dehydration, depression, immune dysfunction, and low cholesterol. Failure to thrive is not a single disease or medical condition; rather, it's a nonspecific manifestation of an underlying physical, mental, or psychosocial condition.



Malnutrition is the key pathophysiologic component of failure to thrive in elderly persons. This malnutrition manifests as weight loss and loss of functional skills and psychological decline.

Many different medical conditions lead to failure to thrive, including chronic infections, inflammatory conditions, psychiatric conditions, and medication use. Each of these conditions effect different organs and produce different types of physical, mental, nutritional and metabolic derangements leading to the manifestations of failure to thrive. A brief list of specific derangements caused by medical conditions and drugs that lead to failure to thrive are discussed below.

The following are common medical conditions associated with failure to thrive in elderly patients: [1]

Medications commonly associated with failure to thrive in elderly patients include the following: [1]

  • Anticholinergic drugs: May result in cognition changes, dysgeusia, dry mouth

  • Antiepileptic drugs: May result in cognition changes, anorexia

  • Benzodiazepines: May result in anorexia, depression, cognition changes

  • Beta blockers: May result in cognition changes, depression

  • Central alpha antagonists: May result in cognition changes, anorexia, depression

  • Diuretics (high-potency combinations): May result in dehydration, electrolyte abnormalities

  • Glucocorticoids: May result in steroid myopathy, diabetes, osteoporosis

  • More than four prescription medications: May result in drug interactions, adverse effects

  • Neuroleptics: May result in anorexia, parkinsonism

  • Opioids: May result in anorexia, cognition changes

  • SSRIs: May result in anorexia

Tricyclic antidepressants: May result in dysgeusia, dry mouth, cognition changes



Many different precipitants lead to failure to thrive. The precipitants can be categorized in the following 8 groups, discussed below. The following list provides a mnemonic (the 11 D’s of “The Dwindles,” a mnemonic for the precipitants of geriatric failure to thrive): [2]

  1. Diseases (medical illness)

  2. Dementia

  3. Delirium

  4. Drinking alcohol, other substance abuse

  5. Drugs

  6. Dysphagia

  7. Deafness, blindness, other sensory deficits

  8. Depression

  9. Desertion by family, friends (social isolation)

  10. Destitution (poverty)

  11. Despair (giving up)


Medical conditions that are either undiagnosed (eg, malignancy) or worsening of existing conditions (eg, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, renal failure) can lead to failure to thrive.


Dementia can lead to several factors that result in failure to thrive, such as poor food intake, social isolation, and depression. [3]

Alcohol and drugs

Elderly patients are limited in their ability to metabolize and excrete drugs and ethanol. Thus, it is critical to review the social history and list of medications to identify potential precipitants such as digoxin. Narcotics and benzodiazepines are another important class of medications that lead to failure to thrive by increasing somnolence or sedation.


Dementia needs to be differentiated from delirium because the latter is an emergency situation that needs to be diagnosed and corrected immediately. Unlike dementia, delirium is acute in onset and has a fluctuating course. It is characterized by inattention and cognitive impairment.

Deafness, blindness, and other sensory deficits

Loss of vision, hearing, and taste and other sensory deficits are social barriers for patients and lead to isolation and depression.


Another important consideration is the patient's ability to chew and swallow food without coughing, choking, or aspirating. Difficulty swallowing needs to be further investigated to identify mechanical or neurological causes.

Depression and despair

Elderly patients may have underlying mental conditions such as depression or anxiety that may result in poor intake of food and social isolation. Some elderly patients may feel that their life is not worth living, because of either their physical limitations or social circumstances, and not eating may be a manifestation of that emotion.

Destitution and desertion

An important aspect of social history in elderly persons is physical and financial access to food. Elderly persons who live alone may be physically limited in their ability to cook or shop for food or may not be able to afford food, predisposing to failure to thrive. In addition, those who lack social support from family and friends are more likely to have failure to thrive due to social isolation and possibly depression.




The prevalence of failure to thrive in elderly adults varies depending on the setting in which it is measured. In the United States, failure to thrive is found in 5%-35% of community-dwelling older adults, 25%-40% of nursing home residents, and 50%-60% of hospitalized veterans. [4]

Fifteen percent of community-dwelling elderly persons in Europe were found to have failure to thrive. [5] Another study revealed that around 28% of elderly patients living in long-term-care facilities in Canada were found to suffer from failure to thrive. [5]

Age-based incidence

Failure to thrive is not part of normal aging, although its prevalence increases with age. Multiple risk factors place elderly individuals at risk for failure to thrive, such as dementia, multiple comorbidities, decreased or limited mobility, and a decreased ability to deal with physical stresses. [3]



Because failure to thrive does not result from a single condition, it is not possible to provide a general prognosis. The prognosis depends on the etiology.


Mortality and Morbidity

Failure to thrive leads to an increased risk of morbidity and mortality via several different mechanisms. [6, 7]

Weight loss in elderly persons is often accompanied by physical, mental, and social consequences that lead to poor quality of life and mortality. Physical changes include loss of height, lower metabolic rate, and alterations in the gastrointestinal tract that further compromise food intake and decrease physical activity. [6] These changes then contribute to social isolation and depression, which leads to further compromise of nutritional and functional status.

Loss of dietary protein has also been found to lead to loss of muscle function and bone mass, infections due to compromised immunity, anemia, and impaired wound healing and ability to recover from physical stresses related to disease or surgery. [7]


Patient Education

Failure to thrive in elderly persons manifests as an inability to sustain weight due to poor nutrition, leading to progressive decline in physical and mental functioning. Many physical, mental, and social conditions can lead to failure to thrive.

It is important that the patient is seen and evaluated by a physician to evaluate the etiology. Once the underlying cause is identified, steps can be taken to address the problem, as well as to help the patient improve nutrition, physical activity, and mental health.