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Failure-to-thrive is a state of decreasing mental and physical abilities. It leads to a decrease in overall health. It often includes a combination of:

  • Poor nutrition
  • Decreased mobility
  • Depression
  • Mental impairment

Causes    TOP

Failure-to-thrive is caused by a blend of issues. It can be a different combination for each person. Chronic health problems often play a role.

For example, mental and physical health challenges can make it hard for some to have a proper diet. A poor diet can then make the chronic condition and overall health worse.

Risk Factors    TOP

Failure-to-thrive is most common in older adults.

Factors that increase the risk of failure-to-thrive include:

  • Having more than one chronic disease
  • Certain medications
  • Physical or cognitive limitations
  • Social isolation
  • Limited income

The Brain

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Symptoms    TOP

Symptoms may include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Poor mental functioning
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased activity
  • Increased fatigue
  • Depression

Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms, medical history, and diet. A physical exam will be done. A mental health exam may also be done.

Tests may be done to look for conditions that may be causing problems.

Fluids can be tested with:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests

Images of internal structures may be taken with:

  • X-rays
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan

It may take some time to find all the issues that are causing the problem.

Treatment    TOP

Treatment will depend on the cause or causes. Treatment may include:

Treating Current Conditions

Current treatments may need to be changed to better manage chronic conditions.

If the treatment itself is causing failure-to-thrive, the plan will be changed.

Dietary Changes

Diet plays a large role in failure-to-thrive. A dietitian can help with meal planning and solutions for those having difficulty eating. Nutritional supplements may also help to improve nutrition.

Supportive Therapy    TOP

Supportive therapies may include:

  • Social workers can recommend services to help with shopping, meals delivery, and home care.
  • Physical therapy may help with mobility issues.
  • Mental health counseling can help manage mental health conditions linked to failure-to-thrive.

Medications    TOP

Anti-depressant medications may be prescribed to reduce depression.

End-of-Life Care    TOP

Sometimes failure-to-thrive is the end stage of a condition. It is important to talk to your doctor about advance directives. These formal documents can help guide medical care in case you are unable to direct your care. It may change medical care from trying to address failure-to-thrive to focusing on comfort only. Formal documents to help support your wishes include a living will and medical power of attorney.

Prevention    TOP

Managing chronic conditions may help reduce the risk of failure-to-thrive. Support systems for those with chronic health issues may also help alert everyone to negative changes quicker than if there was no system in place.


Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
National Institute on Aging


The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Public Health Agency of Canada


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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:
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Roberton R, Montagnini M. Geriatric failure-to-thrive. Am Fam Physician. 2004 Jul 15;70(2):343-350. Available at:
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Sarkisian C, Lachs M. “Failure-to-thrive” in older adults. Ann Intern Med. 1996;124(12):1072-1078. Available at:
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Accessed August 1, 2016.
Last reviewed August 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board James Cornell, MD

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