by EBSCO Medical Review Board


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


Failure-to-thrive is caused by more than 1 problem. It is not the same for each person. Chronic health problems often play a role.

For example, mental health problems can make it hard for some people to eat well. This can make a chronic health problem and overall health worse.

Risk Factors

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

  • Having more than 1 chronic health problem
  • Taking certain medicines
  • Physical or cognitive 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


You will be asked about your symptoms and health history. You may also be asked about your 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. Choices are:

Treating Current Health Problems

Changes may need to be made to manage chronic 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 local services to help with shopping, meal delivery, and home care
  • Physical or occupational therapy to help with movement
  • Mental health 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 formal documents can help guide medical care for people who cannot direct their own care. Other important documents include a living will and medical power of attorney.


Get medical help for problems staying on a care plan for a chronic health problem.


Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians 

National Institute on Aging  


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 November 25, 2019.

Roberton R, Montagnini M. Geriatric failure-to-thrive. Am Fam Physician. 2004 Jul 15;70(2):343-350. Available at: Accessed November 25, 2019.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board James P. Cornell, MD
  • Review Date: 09/2019
  • Update Date: 04/20/2020