The Risks and Benefits of Weight Loss in Overweight Seniors: ACCN Day Three

By Sheela Sinharoy, Student Blogger

Is weight loss always recommended for obese persons, or are there some individuals for whom weight loss may not be necessary or may even be harmful? In a session on Saturday, Dr. Julie Locher looked at this question in relation to seniors. Given that 14% of Americans – or one in seven – are over age 65, and that this proportion is expected to increase to 20% by 2030, it is important to understand the needs and special requirements of this group.

As the proportion of Americans who are over age 65 increases, so too does the prevalence of overweight and obesity. According to Dr. Locher, approximately 35% of older persons are obese. Many of these individuals experience co-morbidities and functional limitations, which are often associated with or impacted by obesity. However, the effects of weight loss treatment in older adults have not been extensively studied.

The benefits of weight loss in older adults are similar to those found in the general population, including reduced markers of inflammation and improved cardiovascular health. As co-morbid conditions increase with age, weight loss may address some of these conditions. Especially when weight loss occurs through a combination of diet and exercise, research has shown that muscle quality and physical function also improve, as does global cognition.

At the same time, some studies have found being overweight to be potentially beneficial. For older adults in particular, a number of studies indicate that being overweight yields no extra risk of mortality, and in fact, may be associated with a lower risk of mortality than being normal weight. Obesity is also associated with increased bone mineral density and decreased osteoporosis as well as with decreased risk of hip fracture.

In addition, weight loss in overweight seniors carries certain risks. First, intentional weight loss is associated with a loss of bone mineral density. Also, weight cycling – when individuals lose and then regain weight – may be a more serious concern with older adults because of their different body composition. When seniors regain weight, it is disproportionately fat, especially abdominal fat, compared to lean muscle. This is associated with higher cardiometabolic risk and an increased risk of disability and mortality.

Even among older adults, needs may differ between sub-populations. For example, as the proportion of older adults continues to rise, the fastest-growing segment is those ages 85 and over. These individuals may require a different therapeutic approach than younger seniors, and improving physical function and quality of life may be more important than obesity treatment.

As some providers move increasingly toward personalized medicine, this may be one more way in which recommendations and a therapeutic approach may need to be tailored to the individual patient. Depending on their bone health, metabolic health, and a range of other factors, doctors may decide that weight loss is not always the best approach for obese older adults. For some seniors, the risks of weight loss may in fact not outweigh the benefits.

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