Obesity in Older Adults

Maintaining a Healthy Weight as You Age

As you grow older, staying fit and healthy is more important than ever – yet the prevalence of obesity in older adults is on the rise. Obesity in the elderly can not only impact morbidity and mortality, but it can also have negative effects on your quality of life. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to not only lose weight, but prevent obesity, and with mindful attention to your changing health and nutritional needs, you can greatly increase your chance of maintaining an active lifestyle in your golden years. 

Causes of Obesity in Older Adults

As you age, your body goes through several changes. Older adults universally experience a loss of muscle mass, which in turn means less strength and can lead to a decrease in exercise. Nutritional needs in older adults shift to match the body’s changing needs, and most older adults don’t need as high of a caloric intake as younger adults to remain healthy. Therefore, maintaining a similar diet to the one you were accustomed to in your younger years might lead to excess calorie consumption. 

Furthermore, according to Alisha Landes, executive director at The Lantern at Morning Pointe, mental decline due to age can also lead to nutritional problems. “Cognitive impairment could be a risk factor in that elderly adults may forget that they just ate and not be aware of healthy eating habits,” she says. 

In some cases, other health issues can even be to blame. Dr. Melanie Blake, a physician with Lifestyle Medicine at Galen Medical Group, explains, “Weight gain could be a sign of another medical condition, so a thorough medical evaluation to rule out causes such as hypothyroidism or a cardiac condition is warranted.” Some people also have a genetic predisposition for being overweight or obese, and chances are, if you’ve struggled with obesity for most of your life, you’ll still be struggling with it as an older adult.

“Cognitive impairment could be a risk factor in that elderly adults may forget that they just ate and not be aware of healthy eating habits.”

The Effects of Obesity

While obesity itself is not considered to be a chronic condition, in older adults it’s considered to be a risk factor for other chronic conditions, many of which are life-threatening. In fact, among other commonly known health risk factors, such as smoking, heavy drinking, and poverty, obesity has the most widespread effect on the population and is the most strongly linked risk factor to chronic illness. Obesity can heighten your risk of heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, and cancer – all of which are in the top 10 causes of death in the United States. Obese older adults are also more likely to experience long-term disability or chronic symptoms of illnesses, such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or other respiratory difficulties, and they are more likely to experience depression than adults of the same age at a healthy weight. 

While obesity can take a direct toll on the health of older adults, it can take a toll on their wallets and lifestyle as well. Medical spending for obese adults of all ages is higher on average compared to adults at a healthy weight, and the likelihood of spending more increases as the likelihood of conditions such as stroke, heart disease, or cancer increases. Obesity can also exacerbate joint problems in older adults, making it difficult to not only exercise, but to participate in daily tasks such as shopping, going for a walk, or cleaning the house. Studies have also linked obesity in older adults with more rapidly deteriorating cognition and mental acuity compared to older adults at a healthier weight.

Prevention and Weight Loss

Fortunately, with a proactive approach, senior adults can work toward preventing excessive weight gain as they age. It’s imperative to regularly visit a primary care physician for wellness exams, as they can keep you informed of your changing nutritional needs as well as identify any potential risk factors that you might have. According to Dr. Blake, making healthy choices in your diet is key. “Focusing on eating plenty of vegetables while avoiding processed foods and refined sugar will help,” she explains. “Increasing water intake and avoiding liquid calories is also beneficial. Simple strategies such as eating off a smaller plate and being mindful of both frequency and quantity of food can go a long way in lowering your overall caloric intake.” 

As for adding activity into your routine, Landes advises that you try to be as active as you can in a way that’s suitable for you. She explains, “Maybe that means going for a daily walk in your neighborhood or just using some light weights to lift in your living room. Cater some activity around what you can do safely. Concentrate on movement.” 

For older adults already struggling with being overweight or obese – don’t worry. It’s never too late to take control of your health! However, weight loss in the senior population can be slightly more complex than it is in younger adults and needs to be discussed with and monitored by a healthcare provider. As weight loss often involves loss of muscle as well as fat, extra care needs to be taken when it comes to changing the diet and nutrition of an older adult trying to slim down; diet composition matters just as much as calorie restriction. Under the supervision of a physician, safe weight loss can certainly be achieved. 

Though obesity poses health risks to people of any age, it can be particularly dangerous for the older population, as it’s one of the greatest risk factors when it comes to developing chronic conditions. However, with close monitoring from your physician, you can safely strive for a healthy weight and gain confidence that you’ll have many more healthy years to come. HS

Picture of Dr. Melanie Blake

Dr. Melanie Blake

Physician, Lifestyle Medicine at Galen Medical Group

Picture of Alisha Landes

Alisha Landes

Executive Director, The Lantern at Morning Pointe

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