The questionnaire is called the SNAQ (pronounced snack), the Simplified Nutritional Appetite Questionnaire, and takes less than two minutes to answer.
"This tool tells us whether a poor appetite is likely to kill you. It identifies the patients who have problems with their appetite and will go on to lose weight," says Margaret-Mary Wilson, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine and geriatrics at Saint Louis University and lead author.
"The watch-and-wait approach is dangerous when it comes to weight loss in older adults. We're dealing with a problem that can be fatal."
Wilson says that most people who are elderly find their appetite isn't as robust as when they were younger. Their sense of taste and smell is blunted, and many older adults take multiple medications, which reduce appetite.
Chronic pain, multiple illnesses, depression and problems with dentures also make it less appealing or more difficult to eat.
Of this group of seniors with appetite problems, some will go on to lose weight, which triggers illness, frailty and potentially death.
"Weight loss is a disease we want to prevent. We can begin treatment before weight loss occurs and have an impact on outcomes. Using this tool, we can intervene before they begin to lose weight," Wilson says.
The researchers asked appetite questions of 247 nursing home residents over age 60 from nine long-term facilities in St. Louis. In addition, 868 residents from the St. Louis metropolitan area, about 40 percent of whom were at least 60, also were asked the questions.
The researchers then checked six months later to see if those who completed the questionnaire lost weight.
More than eight times out of 10, scores on the SNAQ identified those who would go on to lose 5 percent of their weight. The test was even more sensitive in predicting who would lose 10 percent of their weight, picking up the problem 88 percent of the time. The questionnaire was equally reliable for old and younger people, Wilson says.
"This is a tool that can be used in either population," Wilson says. "This could be helpful in treating younger patients with AIDS, cancer and long-term chronic diseases that put them at risk of weight loss. Using this tool, we can intervene before they begin to lose weight."
The SNAQ includes questions that rank the strength of appetite, feelings of fullness after eating, taste of food and number of meals eaten each day. A score at a certain level indicates the risk of significant weight within six months, and should spark a trip to the doctor and nutritional assessment.
"We're advocating it is used in all geriatric patient settings," Wilson says.
"It's such a simple tool it can even be used by families. Don't wait for weight loss to occur. Use the SNAQ."
The research was published in the November issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The division of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University is among the top 10 geriatrics programs in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report. Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first M.D. degree west of the Mississippi River. Saint Louis University School of Medicine is a pioneer in geriatric medicine, organ transplantation, chronic disease prevention, cardiovascular disease, neurosciences and vaccine research, among others. The School of Medicine trains physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health services on a local, national and international level.