Birthdays, they say, are good for you. Statistics say that those who have the most, live the longest. Not one single person can escape getting older, so we might as well crack a joke about it.
But what if your senior years are lurking around the corner, and you have not yet lost the weight you wanted to? Will it get harder to lose weight as you age?
Ageing changes the body
Those of us who have already left our 20-year-old bodies far behind, sometimes look back amazed at how good we looked and felt.
Our hair and skin looked great, we were strong and fit, and most health problems disappeared on their own without much fuss. If something hurts after 40, you start getting concerned.
Getting older is hard on the body – almost everything gets affected. Here are some of the changes we can look forward to:
- Your heart has to work a little bit harder to pump blood, because your blood vessels and arteries become stiffer as you age.
- Your skin produces less natural oils as you age, and therefore feels drier and less supple.
Older people sometimes appear to have thin skin – this is because you lose some of the fatty tissue just below the skin.
Then of course you will also have to deal with wrinkles, age spots or skin tags.
- You might start to experience reduced vision and hearing.
- Your teeth and gums change – you might notice your gums seem to pull away from your teeth.
- Your bones become less dense and more brittle, increasing your risk of fracture.
The disks in your spine will also start to shrink, causing you to lose length.
- The fluid and cartilage that line your joints can decrease or wear away with age, leaving you with stiff joints.
- About 10% of people over 65 start finding it hard to control their bladder. Bowel movements might also become less regular.
- We lose muscle mass, leading to weakness.
All of this is rather daunting, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Many conditions related to ageing can be slowed down or managed by a healthy lifestyle, supplements and medication.
Medication and weight gain
While medication can help us to cope with the natural effects of ageing, they can also unfortunately affect our weight.
Certain medications contribute to weight gain and make it up to twice as likely.
Medications known to cause weight gain include antiepileptics, antipsychotics, antidepressants, antihyperglycemic drugs, steroids and beta-blockers.
If your weight is a concern, discuss it with your doctor when you are prescribed new medication. Where possible they will look for medication that will not cause you to gain weight.
Medication is not the only factor that makes older people more likely to gain weight:
- As we get older, muscle mass decreases and fat mass increases. A high percentage of fat mass in older adults increases the risks of disability, mobility limitations and decreased physical function.
- Eating the same amount of food as they did when they were younger can cause seniors to gain weight. You need fewer calories as you age, and often you are less active.
- Hormonal changes as we age can affect our weight. We develop a resistance to leptin, a hormone that regulates energy intake and expenditure.
- Ageing plays a role in reduced responsiveness to thyroid hormone. This can contribute to an increase in fat mass.
- A change in metabolism plays a role in quicker weight gain. As we age, our digestive systems become less efficient, causing less energy from food getting burned off and more being stored as fat.
- The environment we find ourselves in can also contribute to weight gain. Some senior citizens have less access to places where they can exercise.
Safe places to take a walk are becoming increasingly difficult to find, and a senior citizen is an easy target.
Risks of obesity in old age
A recent study found that people who are obese in their middle ages have higher healthcare costs and die younger than people who have normal body mass index scores.
Weight-related chronic diseases lead to high rates of mortality in people of all ages, but the risk of dying increases with old age.
This is because obesity exacerbates serious conditions such as type two diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and osteoporosis.
Also, people between 60 and 74 who struggle with obesity have been shown to have higher rates of depression.
The lungs of obese patients decrease in size, contributing to respiratory problems.
Older adults who are overweight develop pressure sores more easily, because we lose about 20% of our skin’s dermal thickness as we age.
All of the above factors leads to overweight and obese seniors being more likely to need nursing home care. A chilling prospect.
Is it harder to lose weight in your senior years?
Due to the physical challenges we face as we grow older, many people believe that it is more difficult to lose weight in your senior years.
While it is true that our ageing bodies are more likely to pick up weight, the good news is that you can still lose weight at an older age, just like you could when you were younger.
This was researched by Dr Thomas Barber, the scientific lead of the Human Metabolism Research Unit at the Warwick Medical School in the UK.
In the study 242 obese patients were reviewed between 2005 and 2016. They were divided into two groups: those under 60 years of age and those over 60, and were enrolled in a weight loss programme.
At the end of the study, those over 60 reduced their body weight by 7.3% compared with a body weight reduction of 6.9% in those under 60. This showed that older people can still effectively lose weight.
According to Dr Barker there are a number of reasons why people may discount weight loss in older people.
“These include an ‘ageist’ perspective that weight loss is not relevant to older people and misconceptions of reduced ability of older people to lose weight through dietary modification and increased exercise.”
“Older people may feel that hospital-based obesity services are not for them. Service providers and policymakers should appreciate the importance of weight loss in older people with obesity.”
The human body undergoes significant changes as it ages.
We become weaker, slower and more prone to illness and injury.
Our dietary needs change – we need less food than when we were younger.
This, combined with hormonal changes and less muscle mass makes it easier to gain weight in old age.
When we get older, obesity is even more dangerous than in your youth.
It is a myth that it is harder to lose weight when you are older.
Ageing people can lose weight just as successfully as younger people.
Weight management as you age
Eating healthy and getting exercise remains the main focus for weight loss as you age. However, some adjustments might be needed to keep your changing body free of injury. Here are a few tips:
- Keeping your body moving is vital at any age, even for the very old and frail. The focus should be on physical activity designed to preserve muscle and bone mass.
A good option is routine physical activity that includes stretching, aerobics and strengthening exercises.
- Remember to discuss your medication with your doctor to ensure that it doesn’t cause weight gain.
- Try to help the elderly person in your life by getting them to join a group in which they can exercise. Hard work becomes so much easier when it’s shared.
- Address any problems you have with sleep. Hormonal changes that occur when you don’t get enough sleep causes you to crave more food, but feel less full.
- We need protein for healthy muscles, but meat can be difficult to eat for some elderly people. Keep this in mind and focus on other sources of protein such as yoghurt or eggs.
- If long exercise sessions are too much, switch to short intervals throughout the day. Three 10-minute exercise sessions are just as valuable as one of 30 minutes.
- Consult a medical professional before you start a weight loss programme. Diets that are recommended for younger adults can be dangerous and counter-productive in older adults.
Dr Barber said: “Weight loss is important at any age, but as we get older we’re more likely to develop the weight-related comorbidities of obesity.”
“Many of these are similar to the effects of ageing, so you could argue that the relevance of weight loss becomes heightened as we get older.” It is never too late to start.
Don’t let your age prevent you from living your best life. As Walt Disney famously stated: “Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional.”