Overweight in Seniors: Cause, Consequences, and Interventions
Overweight in seniors, and obesity may affect anyone at any age. But as we grow older, we tend to be more susceptible to obesity. At the age of 55 and above, our bodies have changed so much that even without junk foods and other bad eating habits, you can still gain weight.
People always assume that as you grow older, growing wider and wider is a normal and unavoidable part of life. But that’s actually wrong –in fact, it’s not a “normal” part of aging. It might be true, statistically, but it isn’t a biological necessity. Aging is characterized by various changes in our body composition.
“A number of studies have revealed that as we age, visceral fat (in the abdominal cavity) increases while the subcutaneous fat (below the skin) decreases"
Now, think of visceral fat as your enemy. This is because it’s responsible for causing systemic inflammation, stroke, coronary artery disease, and death. And if that’s not enough, visceral fat is also responsible for those extra pounds around your waist and belly.
Another major change, as you age, is the loss of muscle mass. And since muscles have a high metabolic rate, reduction in muscle mass is associated with reduced energy expenditure. This, in turn, reduces the number of calories burned and results in weight gain.
Why are seniors in danger of becoming overweight?
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve witnessed it first hand. As the years go by, the extra pounds you have added may become more and more difficult to get rid off again. But have you ever wondered exactly why this happens?
Well, if you’re looking for a short answer, your lifestyle and eating habits are to blame. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that for seniors. While those two are the main culprits, our biology gets a little complicated when we age. But let’s just keep things simple here.
With that said, let’s get back to basics for a moment. Being overweight or obsess happens when you consume more calories than your body burns. In the past, most people thought that being overweight was brought about simply by under-exercising and overeating. Some people even believed this to partly be a result of a lack of self-control and willpower.
While the above factors are major contributors now researchers have discovered something else.
“Researchers recognize that overweight in seniors is a complex problem involving environmental, genetic, social and behavioral factors”
All these play a role in determining how much you weigh. Here is a summary of the factors that contribute to seniors being overweight.
As you age, your metabolism slows down naturally. The slow-down tends to be more pronounced for people living a sedentary lifestyle. When your rate of metabolism reduces, your body will burn fewer calories, and you’re more likely to add weight.
The most obvious lifestyle factors responsible for weight gain in seniors are exercises and diet. Consider how your diet and level of activity have changed over the years. If you’ve slowed down your life recently and reduced physical activities, you’re storing more calories as fat. Additionally, resorting to comfort foods when you’re in distress or bored can quickly contribute to weight gain.
“According to the National Institutes of Health, depression affects over 20 million Americans per year”
Seniors who have any sort of depressive disorders are highly susceptible to becoming overweight. Some of the depression symptoms to look out for include changes in appetite, moodiness, ongoing fatigue, trouble concentrating, sleep disturbances, lack of energy, and suicidal thoughts or hopelessness.
As earlier mentioned, our bodies tend to lose muscle mass and increase fat mass as we grow older. This slows down the rate of metabolism and consequently, the number of calories burned. Additionally, this increases the risk of mobility limitations, disability, and decreased physical function.
There are a number of hormonal changes that occur as you age. These may contribute to weight gain. For instance, seniors may tend to develop resistance to leptin –a hormone responsible for regulating energy expenditure and intake. There is also a reduced responsiveness to thyroxine (thyroid hormone) as we age. These hormonal changes can contribute to increased fat mass in our bodies.
“According to a publication in the American Nursing Association by Ann Newman, your environment can contribute to you becoming overweight”
Some seniors have limited access to fitness and exercise centers, especially those that can provide specialized physical activity programs. Additionally, seniors need safe places to bike and walk, and in most cases, these are not readily available.
Many seniors simply continue to eat the same diet and amount of food as they used to eat when they were younger without considering that they are physically less active. This makes them gain more weight even when everything else is in order.
6 consequences of being obese as a senior
Just like being underweight, obesity in elders comes with its own share of health consequences. Some of which can be quite hard to address.
Obesity at any age is a struggle. But as you age, it becomes even more difficult to live a comfortable life. Here are some of the health consequences and struggles that overweight adults face.
Type 2 Diabetes
More than 87% of diabetic adults are obese or overweight. It’s believed that being overweight changes the responsiveness of cells and makes them resistant to insulin hormone. When someone is diabetic, blood sugar cannot be absorbed by cells and used for energy, leading to high blood sugar levels.
Overweight and obese seniors often have problems that may contribute to heart disease. Such health issues include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol. All these can contribute to things like heart attacks, sudden cardiac death, chest pain, abnormal heart rhythm or heart failure. In fact, heart diseases are the leading cause of mortality in the US.
High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is essentially how hard your heart pumps blood through your arteries. Being overweight and obese will cause your heart to pump harder for the blood to reach all your cells.
"Excess fat may also damage the kidneys, which contribute to blood pressure regulation"
Obesity and overweight are known to contribute to high blood pressure, which is the primary cause of strokes. Accumulation of fat in the arteries may cause clogging. This often leads to ischemic stroke or hemorrhagic stroke. Obesity also increases your risk of developing other complications related to strokes such as high cholesterol.
Obesity is the primary cause of sleep apnea in seniors. Obese or overweight seniors may have excess fat stored around their necks. This then makes the airways smaller thus making it more difficult to breathe. This can lead to loud snoring and in some cases, you might even stop breathing for short periods.
This condition is characterized by stiffness and pain in your joints. It most commonly affects knees, hips, lower back, and hands. Generally being overweight is the primary contributing factor in osteoarthritis.
However, becoming obese at an older age simply makes things even worse. Excess weight places excess pressure on your joints and cartilage, which causes them to wear away.
Other than the above-named health conditions, obesity in elderly people can also contribute to physical disability and limited mobility. Obesity also affects cognitive ability, which includes things like problem solving, memory, and decision-making. These functions naturally deteriorate with age, but studies show that they deteriorate faster in obese seniors.
Treatment and prevention of excessive weight gain and obesity
There are a number of things you can do to prevent, or reduce obesity, and live a healthier life. One of the most obvious and commonly recommended solutions for overweight seniors is exercise.
You should focus on physical activities that will help you shed some pounds while preserving your bone and muscle mass. Some of the recommended physical activities include stretching exercise, aerobics and stretching.
However, the most effective program for managing obesity and overweight in the elderly would be to combine a healthy diet, physical activity and changes in daily habits. You may also want to involve drug therapy and psychological counseling to complement other interventions. Losing weight and keeping it off can be a bit challenging for seniors because it requires major behavioral and lifestyle changes.
The most important thing is to stay on a balanced and healthy diet.
“Now is not the best time to embark on crash and fad diets”
These can be dangerous at your age and for you to be successful with your weight loss, you need to make lifelong changes. These include exercise and eating habits as well as understand the emotional factors that trigger overeating. Seniors who are medically obese need to consult a dietician or doctor for a safe and customized weight loss program.
Medication may also be used to complement the current weight loss program. But it’s important to keep in mind that these are not “magic cures” that will lead to permanent weight loss. They need to be combined with a proper exercise and diet program!
They’re typically reserved for people who’re classified as obese (usually with a BMI of more than 30) or obese people with additional heart disease risk factors like diabetes or high cholesterol. So, talk to your doctor to find out if this is an option for you.