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Failure-to-thrive is a decrease in mental and physical ability.


Failure-to-thrive is caused by more than one problem. It is not the same for each person. Long term health problems often play a role.

For example, mental health problems can make it hard for some people to eat well. This can worsen health.

Risk Factors

Failure-to-thrive is more common in older adults. Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Having more than one long term health problem
  • Taking certain medicines
  • Physical or intellectual limits
  • Having little or no social interaction
  • Limited income
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Symptoms may be:

  • Lack of hunger
  • Confusion
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Less activity
  • Being more tired than usual
  • Feelings of depression


The doctor will ask about symptoms, past health, diet, and activities. A physical and mental health exam will be done.

Tests may be done to look for physical causes. It may take some time to find all the issues that are causing the problem.


Treatment will depend on the causes. Options may be:

Treating Current Health Problems

Changes may need to be made to manage long term health problems. Sometimes a treatment can cause problems and may need to be changed.

Diet Changes

A dietitian can help with meal planning and food choices.

Supportive Therapy

Supportive care may be:

  • Social workers who can suggest services—to help with shopping, meals, and home care
  • Physical or occupational therapy—to help with movement
  • Counseling—to talk about emotions


Medicine may be given for depression.

End-of-Life Care

Failure-to-thrive may be the end stage of an illness. Advance directives are important for a care plan. These documents can help guide a person's medical care. It is for people who cannot direct their own care. Other important documents are a living will and medical power of attorney.


To help prevent failure to thrive:

  • Get medical help for problems
  • Follow a care plan for a long term health problem
  • Resources

    American Academy of Family Physicians

    National Institute on Aging

    Canadian Resources

    The College of Family Physicians of Canada

    Public Health Agency of Canada


    Kumeliauskas L, Fruetel K, et al. Evaluation of older adults hospitalized with a diagnosis of failure-to-thrive. Can Geriatr J. 2013;16(2):49-53. Available at: Accessed May 25, 2022.

    Roberton R, Montagnini M. Geriatric failure-to-thrive. Am Fam Physician. 2004 Jul 15;70(2):343-350. Available at: Accessed May 25, 2022.