Unexplained weight loss is a reduction in body weight that you cannot account for. This can happen for many reasons, including an illness or side effect of medication, or even something wrong with your metabolism. If you have unexplained weight loss, speak with your doctor as soon as possible to make sure that there is not a serious health problem.
Losing a lot of weight quickly should always be a concern. You may be losing weight without trying, particularly if it is significant or ongoing. The point at which unexplained weight loss becomes a medical concern is not exact. Even though weight loss may come and go in different patterns, unexplained weight loss should always be taken seriously. If you lose more than 5% of your weight in 6 to 12 months, it is time to talk with a doctor. More specifically, if your weight has dropped by more than 10 pounds (4 kilograms) and you are an older adult, or if you are taking medications that increase your risk for malnutrition or other medical conditions. A sudden, significant weight loss can be a sign of a medical condition. Your weight is affected by your diet, physical activity, and overall health. For example, how well you are absorbing nutrients is a factor in how much you can eat. Economic and social factors may also play a role. Your body’s metabolism controls how many calories you burn each day. If your calorie intake is too high or your activity level too low, you may be at risk of being overweight. Factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, and access to health care can also play a role in whether someone has a healthy weight.
There are several factors that can contribute to unexplained weight loss in older people. While most older adults are aware that they may lose some weight as they age, they may not be aware that unexplained weight loss of less than 5 percent of body weight or 10 pounds may be an indication of a serious medical condition.
Causes of weight loss
Unexplained weight loss has many causes, medical and nonmedical. Often, a combination of things results in a general decline in your health and related weight loss. Many times medical disorders that cause weight loss include other symptoms that define the disorder. Sometimes a specific cause is not found. Unexplained weight loss can be caused by conditions that range from mild to serious. These problems can cause you to lose body mass and gain it back again, usually unevenly. The causes for this can be physical or psychological, some of the potential causes include:
- Dental problems
- Depression (major depressive disorder) or other mood disorders
- Hypercalcemia (high blood calcium level)
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- Hyponatremia (low blood sodium level)
- Parkinson’s disease
- Previous stroke or neurological disorders
- The underactive or overactive thyroid gland
Apart from the above mentioned, there are some causes which are less common conditions that may include weight loss such as:
- Addison’s disease (adrenal insufficiency)
- Alcohol use disorder
- Amyloidosis (build-up of abnormal proteins in your organs)
- Celiac disease
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) worsening of symptoms
- Crohn’s disease
- Drug addiction (substance use disorder)
- Heart failure
- Peptic ulcer
- Prescription drug abuse
- Ulcerative colitis (a type of inflammatory bowel disease)
Some of the other causes include:
- Muscle loss: Muscle loss, or muscle wasting, can lead to unexpected weight loss. It also happens to people who do not exercise, who have injuries or illnesses that prevent them from using muscles, or who are bedridden for a long time. Muscle loss or muscle wasting occurs when your muscles lose mass and strength. Muscle loss can lead to weight loss, but it is reversible with proper nutrition and exercise. Muscle loss, or muscle wasting, can be a serious medical condition. Your muscle may look smaller than the other, or one of your limbs may seem off-balance.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that makes your immune system attack the lining of your joints, leading to inflammation. Chronic inflammation can speed up metabolism and reduce overall weight. You might have RA if you have a variety of joint symptoms, including joint pain, stiffness, and swelling after extended periods of not being active. Although the cause is unknown, it is thought to be linked to several factors including age and genes.
- Endocarditis: Endocarditis is inflammation of the inside lining of your heart. It develops when germs – typically bacteria – enter your bloodstream, collect in your heart, and spread to other parts of your body. It is a rare condition that most often affects people with weakened or damaged heart valves or congenital heart defects. It can cause inflammation of the inner part of your heart, including its chambers and valves. People with weakened hearts or those who have had heart surgery may be at higher risk. Signs and symptoms include fever, chills, and a sore throat. If you have endocarditis, it is important to stay well hydrated and take aspirin.
When To See A Doctor
Losing weight or body fat may indicate that you have a medical condition if it happens over several months. Your provider can help you determine the cause by talking with you and reviewing your medications, symptoms, general physical health, and any medical issues. Doctors often recommend that people lose 5 percent of their body weight or 10 pounds within a period of 6 to 12 months to prevent sepsis, heart attacks, and other serious conditions. But this percentage varies. If you are overweight and have some health problems, you should always consult your physician first before starting the diet. Your healthcare provider can work with you to try to determine what is causing the weight loss. You will start with a thorough discussion of your symptoms, medications, general mental and physical health, and medical conditions.
If you are experiencing side effects from your treatment, such as nausea or diarrhea, you may want to talk with your healthcare provider. They can help determine if there are any underlying medical conditions that are causing those side effects. A colon cancer screening test will help determine if you have any colorectal problems. Your provider may recommend a colonoscopy to check for precancerous conditions of the colon and rectum, knowing that some of these could progress into colon cancer. Your doctor may also discuss changes in your diet or appetite and sense of taste and smell. These can affect your eating and weight and may be related to some medical conditions.
The goal of the evaluation is to determine the cause of your weight loss and to guide you in making appropriate treatment decisions. Your doctor can help you with recommendations for eating habits and activities that will help you maintain your weight loss. Blood and urine tests may be necessary to rule out other medical conditions, such as anemia or diabetes. Your healthcare provider may recommend additional imaging tests. Imaging scans to look for hidden cancers are not usually done unless some other clue in addition to weight loss points in that direction.
Who Is At Greater Risk Men Or Women?
Men have a higher risk of endocarditis and pancreatic cancer, but women are at higher risk for COPD. Men have a 2 to 10 times more chance of developing hyperthyroidism and a 2 to 3 times more chance of having RA.
How Is Unexplained Weight Loss Diagnosed?
Understanding your weight loss may involve getting a physical exam, blood work, and imaging tests. Your doctor will be able to determine if other tests may be needed to help understand why you are losing weight. Your doctor will ask you a few questions that help determine the cause of your weight loss. It is important, to be honest, and answer everything as directly as possible. Various questions such as those provided below may be asked:
- How much weight have you lost?
- When did the weight loss begin?
- Are you taking any medications?
- Have your eating patterns changed?
- Are you exercising more?
- Have you been sick recently?
- Are you feeling tired more often?
- Do you have any dental problems?
- Do you have any problems with swallowing?
- Have you been vomiting?
- Are you experiencing stress?
- Have you had any fainting episodes?
- Do you have increased thirst?
- Are you urinating more than usual?
- Do you have diarrhea?
- Are you depressed?
- How much alcohol do you drink per day?
How Is Unexplained Weight Loss Treated?
If you have unexplained weight loss and have tried losing weight through diet and exercise, but have not been able to maintain your new weight loss, you may need underlying medical testing. Your doctor may recommend a wait-and-see approach, along with a special diet plan to determine if there is an underlying condition that could be causing your weight loss. The goal of your visit is to identify the underlying cause of the weight loss and correct it as soon as possible.
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