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Ideas and Opinions |

“Failure To Thrive” in Older Adults

Catherine A. Sarkisian, MD; and Mark S. Lachs, MD, MPH
[+] Article and Author Information

From The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical College and the Amsterdam Nursing Home Corporation, New York, New York. Acknowledgments: The authors thank Drs. Stephen Paget and Thomas Gill for reviewing early drafts of the manuscript. Grant Support: Dr. Lachs is a Paul Beeson Physician Faculty Scholar (American Federation For Aging Research), the recipient of Academic Award K00800580 from the National Institute on Aging, and an American College of Physicians Teaching and Research Scholarship. Requests for Reprints: Mark Lachs, MD, MPH, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical College, 515 East 17th Street #912, New York, NY 10021. Current Author Addresses: Dr. Sarkisian: Cornell Internal Medicine Associates, 505 East 70th Street, HT-4, New York, NY 10021.


Copyright ©2004 by the American College of Physicians


Ann Intern Med. 1996;124(12):1072-1078. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-124-12-199606150-00008
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The term “failure to thrive” is frequently used to describe older adults whose independence is declining.The term was exported from pediatrics in the 1970s and is used to describe older adults with various concurrent chronic diseases, functional impairments, or both. Despite this heterogeneity, failure to thrive has had its own International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision (ICD-9) code since 1979 and has been approached as a clinically meaningful diagnosis in many review articles. This conceptual framework, however, can create barriers to proper evaluation and management. The most worrisome of these barriers is the reinforcement of both fatalism and intellectual laziness, which need to be balanced with a deconstructionist approach, wherein the major areas of impairment are identified and quantified and have their interactions considered. Four syndromes known to be individually predictive of adverse outcomes in older adults are repeatedly cited as prevalent in patients with failure to thrive: impaired physical functioning, malnutrition, depression, and cognitive impairment. The differential diagnosis of contributors to each of these syndromes includes the other three syndromes, and multiple contributors often exist concurrently. Some of these contributors are unmodifiable, some are easily modifiable, and some are potentially modifiable but only with the use of resource-intensive strategies. Initial interventions should be directed at easily remediable contributors in the hope of improving overall functional status, because a single contributor may simultaneously influence several other syndromes that conspire to create the phenotype of failure to thrive. How aggressively should more resource-intensive strategies for less easily modifiable contributors be pursued? This is a central clinical, ethical, and policy issue in geriatric medicine that cannot be settled without better process and outcome data. This paper examines the medical etymology of failure to thrive and proposes a rational approach to evaluation and management that is based on the limited medical literature.

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Grahic Jump Location
Figure 1.
Evaluation of the older adult who is failing in the community.
Grahic Jump Location

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