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Significant unintentional weight loss in a previously healthy individual is often a harbinger of underlying systemic disease. The routine medical history should always include inquiry about changes in weight. Rapid fluctuations of weight over days suggest loss or gain of fluid, whereas long-term changes usually involve loss of tissue mass. Loss of 5% of body weight over 6–12 months should prompt further evaluation. Gradual weight loss is physiologic in persons aged >80, but this demographic group also has a high risk for malignancy or other serious illness.


The principal causes of involuntary weight loss can be assigned to four categories: (1) malignant neoplasms, (2) chronic inflammatory or infectious diseases, (3) metabolic disorders, or (4) psychiatric disorders (Table 32-1). In older persons, the most common causes of weight loss are depression, cancer, and benign GI disease. Social isolation and/or poverty can contribute to undernutrition and weight loss. Lung and GI cancers are the most common malignancies in pts presenting with weight loss. In younger individuals, diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism, anorexia nervosa, and infection, especially with HIV, should be considered.

TABLE 32-1Causes of Weight Loss


Before extensive evaluation is undertaken, it is important to confirm that weight loss has occurred (up to 50% of claims of weight loss cannot be substantiated). In the absence of documentation, changes in belt notch size or the fit of clothing may help to determine loss of weight.

The history should include questions about fever, pain, shortness of breath or cough, palpitations, and evidence of neurologic disease. A history of GI symptoms should be obtained, including difficulty eating, dysgeusia, dysphagia, anorexia, nausea, and change in bowel habits. Travel history, use of cigarettes, alcohol, and all medications should be reviewed, and pts should be questioned about previous illness or surgery as well as diseases in family members. Risk factors for HIV should be assessed. Signs of depression, evidence of dementia, and social factors, including isolation, loneliness, and financial issues that might affect food intake, should be considered.


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