Obesity: What is Different for the Elderly


Obesity can be a very serious problem. Not only does it cause stress on the body, especially the joints and organs. In addition to that, it is associated with a host of other health problems. Among these are diabetes, high blood pressure, and even death. Millions of Americans live with the dangers of obesity. First Lady Michelle Obama made combating obesity one of her highest goals throughout her husband’s presidency. She pushed for children to get healthier school lunches and advocated for more outdoor play, especially in urban communities. Yet when it comes to older people and obesity, the conversation changes; obesity is not such a negative word. This is the paradox of elderly obesity.


Why Elderly Obesity Is Different

According to an article published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, obesity actually increases longevity in older people. For younger folks, obesity is associated with early death and complications that lead to early death. Surprisingly, obesity actually helps seniors live longer, healthier lives. Other studies have supported this conclusion as well. Therein lies the paradox: what kills younger people actually seems to help older people.

Why is elderly obesity good for longevity? It’s complicated. Part of the answer is that more body fat helps prevent injury from falls. The extra layers cushion bones and help stop breaks and fractures. Since death from a fall is one of the leading causes of mortality for seniors, that means that seniors with more body weight are less likely to die from a fall. Obviously, this would result in lower mortality rates for the well-padded. Similarly, older people suffer greatly when frail or underweight. Losing weight can drastically affect their muscle mass and place a burden on the body to recalibrate new nutritional status. Although losing weight can be easier on weaker joints or muscles, which could improve mobility for some older people, losing weight can be a dangerous gamble. For some and even most older people, being somewhat overweight is actually better.That is why elderly obesity is paradoxical.

Sarcopenic Obesity

Sarcopenic obesity, according to the authors of the Cleveland Clinic study, is when the body loses muscle mass and gains fat. This happens naturally with age since muscles begin to decline in the 20s and 30s. Still, it is especially dangerous for older people. Muscle mass is very important since it helps seniors move and remain independent. Moreover, independence affects everything from mental and emotional health to physical health, especially in regard to daily exercise and cardiovascular health. Since current systems of measurement include using the Body Mass Index system, which does not take muscle mass into account, older people can be experiencing this dangerous form of elderly obesity without a doctor even knowing it. The situation may go on until the condition causes frailty and permanent damage to mobility. Noting and stopping severe sarcopenic obesity can help an elderly person live a longer life, regardless of the person’s weight.

The Answer for Caregivers

A caregiver who is concerned about the weight of a loved one should always consult a doctor. This should be done before making any nutritional or lifestyle changes. A doctor can establish what a healthy weight range should be according to the person’s  individual needs. What is more, a doctor can help make a plan for the senior to get and/or stay in that range. Also, a nutritionist can point a senior toward dietary supplements to help maintain a healthy weight and ensure a full day’s worth of nutrients every day. This can help the elderly person make the most of his or her healthy weight. In addition, it can promote good bone health and provide the senior with the energy to socialize and exercise, which increase longevity. Caregivers should not hesitate to bring up nutritional and weight issues with a loved one’s doctor. Such things are foundational to good health.

More from SeniorsMatter.com on Healthy Weight

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Cetin, D. and Nasr, G. (January 2014). Obesity in the elderly: More complicated than you think. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 81(1): 51-61. Available at http://www.ccjm.org/index.php?id=107953&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=369249&cHash=b708749bb14a6d1c0b32b1bc9864169f. Retrieved August 10, 2016.

Han, T.S., Tajar, A., and Lean, M. E. J. (January 10, 2011). Obesity and weight management in the elderly. British Medical Bulletin, 97(1): 169-96. Available at http://bmb.oxfordjournals.org/content/97/1/169.full. Retrieved August 10, 2016.

Miller, S.L. and Wolfe, R.R. (August-September 2008). The danger of weight loss in the elderly. Journal of Nutritional Health and Aging, 12(7): 487-91. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18615231. Retrieved August 10, 2016.