Weight Loss and Age

Written by Marissa Selner | Published on July 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Wider, MD

The Connection Between Weight Loss and Age

It is important to maintain a healthy weight as you age. Excess weight combined with the strain of aging can make you more susceptible to illness and can shorten your life. However, changes in metabolism and the difficulty of eliminating poor habits from your lifestyle can make weight loss difficult for middle age and elderly individuals.

Why Does Weight Loss Get Harder with Age?

In your teens, 20s, and 30s, you may have noticed that excess weight came off easily. For example, maybe you only needed to make minor changes to your eating habits and activity levels. However, losing weight requires more effort as you reach middle age due to the following factors.

Aging Muscles

Your muscle tissue naturally shrinks as you age. The exact reason for this is unknown. However, it seems that wear and tear on the muscles, combined with hormonal changes, may make the body less efficient at replenishing muscle cells after they are damaged. When your muscle cells diminish, unburned calories are more likely to be changed to fat. This can slow weight loss for the following reasons:

  • Muscles may become rigid with age and may lose tone, even with regular exercise.
  • You have limited strength and endurance for exercise.
  • You may not have strong motivation to lose weight, since your body likely maintains a “soft” appearance even at a healthy weight.

Hormonal Changes

According to the Mayo Clinic, the hormonal changes of menopause do not necessarily trigger weight gain in women (MayoClinic, 2010). They can, however, change the way your body looks, causing excess weight to accumulate in the abdomen, rather than the hips and thighs. This, combined with the emotional effects of hormonal changes, can lead to crash diets that ultimately make permanent, healthy weight loss more difficult.

It is believed that hormonal changes associated with aging in both men and women may contribute to the muscle loss that slows metabolism.

Physical Strain

As you age, you may not have the ability to participate in activities you once enjoyed. For example, you may need to trade running for walking, weight lifting for yoga, and hiking for swimming. Although lower-impact activities are still effective, you may need to do them more often, or for longer periods, to achieve the same results. This can be hard if you are used to reserving a set amount of time for exercise.

Sometimes, older individuals may have health limitations that reduce or eliminate their ability to be active. Others may assume they are too old for exercise, and avoid activity all together.

Lifestyle Changes

There are many changes, both good and bad, that you may experience as you age. Retirement may dramatically reduce the amount of physical activity you get on a daily basis. After working throughout life, you may see this period as an extended vacation. Relaxation like this often leads to over-indulgence in unhealthy foods without the benefit of daily exercise.

You may also face challenges as a growing number of friends fall ill or die as they age. This can lead to emotional eating and diminished focus on staying active.

Why Is Weight Loss Important as You Age?

It is important to lose weight if you are already overweight as you approach middle age, or if you notice you are gaining weight as you age. As more of your muscle turns to fat (and other factors possibly cause you to gain more weight), you may be at risk for the following serious conditions (MayoClinic, 2010):

  • heart disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • colon cancer
  • breast cancer (gaining as little as 4.4 pounds at age 50 or later could increase the risk of breast cancer by 30 percent)
  • stroke
  • poor mobility due to strain on your joints and muscles

Many of these conditions are a threat if you are overweight, no matter your age. If you don’t have any of these conditions by middle age, your risk may increase if you remain overweight. This is due to the aging of your organs and muscles, combined with the excess weight straining your body. If you have any of these conditions at middle age, they may become harder to manage if you don’t lose the weight.

Risk Factors for Weight Problems

You are more likely to struggle with losing weight as you age if your parents were heavy later in life. Your weight problems may re-emerge, persist, or get worse with age if you have a history of being overweight or obese.

Losing Weight at an Older Age

Annual physical exams are important. Your doctor will monitor your weight and screen for problems that may be more easily treated if they are identified early.

Your doctor may make suggestions to help you lose weight. These could include:

  • following a specific diet or weight loss program
  • following an exercise program or joining a gym
  • identifying which physical activities are safe for your age and health profile
  • assigning a target weight that is realistic for your body type

In some cases, your doctor may refer you to specialists in areas such as dietetics, physical therapy, cardiovascular health, and chiropractic care. These health professionals may offer further help customizing a healthy diet and lifestyle. They may also recommend exercises to help you get active.

Weight Loss Surgery

If you are morbidly obese (you weigh 100 pounds over your ideal weight or have a body mass index of 35 to 40 or more), you may need more aggressive help losing weight. Your doctor may suggest weight loss surgery. These procedures reduce the size of your stomach, usually with a band or sutures. Surgeons usually do these surgeries laparoscopically. The surgeon makes a small incision in your abdomen and uses a small camera and surgical tools to bypass the stomach (ClevelandClinic, 2009).

Your doctor will decide if you are a good candidate for surgery based on:

  • your current weight
  • your weight loss history
  • your age
  • your health

According to a 2009 study at Baylor University Medical Center, seniors who have gastric bypass surgery do not face additional risks for complications due to their age, and they have similar weight loss benefits as young patients (ASMBS, 2009).

People who undergo weight loss surgery often receive nutritional counseling in an attempt to make the weight loss results long-term. However, there are some risks associated with surgery. Therefore, most doctors do not recommend it unless diet and exercise have failed and you are at risk for obesity-related health problems.

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