It’s well known as people age, their appetites decrease significantly, but this seemingly harmless calorie cutting does far more than help them shed a few pounds from their frail frames. It instead could be affecting the amount of years they have left. Researchers from Monash University investigated how an older person’s appetite relates to their aging process, and published their findings in the journal Appetite.

"Appetite is generally regarded as one of the most important indicators of health," the study’s lead author Mark Wahlqvist, a professor from Monash University’s Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, said in a press release. "Factors of this kind lead to poor appetite and related poor health. We found that elderly people with fair or poor appetites had higher risks of mortality than those with good appetites."

Elderly people don’t eat as much as they used to at the peak of activity because they may have chewing difficulties, general deteriorating, or are experiencing side effects to medications that suppress their appetites. Mental health could also play a big role in one’s diets, such as the psychological consequences of loneliness or depression. It’s important to also realize there are a lot of overweight elderly people and that is not an indication of aging anorexia, but instead a sign of it. Overweight people could be nutritionally imbalanced in their diets; it doesn’t just have to do with how much they’re eating, but instead what are they eating.

Researchers analyzed the health records of 1,856 adults 65 years and older from the Elderly Nutrition and Health Survey between 1999 and 2000. After undergoing in-person interviews and filling out 24-hour diet journals from memory, the participants’ diets were scored depending on how often they had meat, fish, seafood, eggs, vegetables, and fruits along with important vitamins and minerals. Those who reported they had bad diets and appetites were diagnosed with the “anorexia of aging.”

Poor diets are associated with impaired muscle function, decreased bone mass, immune dysfunction, anemia, reduced cognitive function, poor wound healing, delayed recovery from surgery, and increased morbidity known as death, according to a study in the Journal of the International Psychogeriatric Association.

"Poor appetite may be a valuable early indicator of incipient nutritionally related disorders and disease, and of premature mortality," Wahlqvist said. "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."

Source: Huang YC, Wahlqvist ML, and Lee MS. Appetite predicts mortality in free-living older adults in association with dietary diversity. A NAHSIT cohort study. Appetite. 2014.