Weighing In – Why the Elderly Should Be Mindful of Their Bodyweight

Maintaining a healthy bodyweight as we age

Being mindful of bodyweight is important for all of us, especially the elderly. Whilst overweight elderly people are at increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, their underweight counterparts are at increased risk of nutritional deficiencies (1). 

Weight loss is particularly dangerous in the elderly, especially when it occurs rapidly and seemingly without explanation, i.e. the individual is eating as normal and doesn’t seem to be affected by any negative physical symptoms.

Some of the most common causes of weight loss in the elderly (2) are as follows:

  • Loneliness and social isolation
  • Medication
  • Chronic physical illness
  • Mental health issues
  • Decreased ability to perform activities of daily living

The Consequences of Weight Loss in the Elderly

The consequences of gradual or sudden loss of bodyweight in elderly individuals can be fatal, with many studies highlighting the correlation between weight loss and mortality in elderly individuals.

Atrophy, or muscle reduction, is a particularly prevalent consequence of weight loss in the elderly and often results in individuals being unable to care for themselves as they should. Decreased immunocompetence (3) and an increase in the rate of disease complications are also consequences of weight loss, as is depression which often makes it difficult for care providers to assist elderly individuals in regaining weight.

The Consequences of Bodyweight Gain or Obesity in the Elderly

Although weight gain isn’t as prevalent as weight loss in the elderly, it’s naturally a cause for concern, as is obesity in the elderly.

Elderly individuals who are overweight are far more susceptible to cardiovascular diseases (4) and they’re also far more prone to suffering from conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis due the pressure their weight places on their joints and bones, particularly their ankles, knees, hips and lower spinal region.

Being obese makes you more likely to develop diabetes, the condition of having too much glucose (sugar) circulating in your bloodstream. Obesity also causes diabetes to worsen faster. Depression and urinary incontinence have also been linked to obesity in the elderly, resulting in a very real need to lose weight safely, i.e. losing fat mass gradually while preserving muscle mass.

How the Elderly Can Gain Weight Safely

Gaining weight generally has the effect of improving functionality and strength in the elderly; however, particular attention and care must be paid so as to gain weight gradually and safely without increasing cholesterol levels and putting the individual at increased risk of suffering from cardiovascular conditions.

Tips for Gaining Weight Safely

  • Increase caloric consumption at and between meals, for instance, adding olive oil to pasta dishes, drinking milk or alternatives like rice or soya milk between meals and increasing protein intake.
  • Avoid drinking with meals as this could dampen appetites, especially in individuals with poor appetites.
  • Eat six to eight small meals per day (meals should be fairly calorie-dense) or continue to eat three regular meals per day with high-carbohydrate, high-protein.
  • Eat with other people and make eating a social occasion if the individual finds it difficult to sit down to regular meals on their own.

Paying explicit attention to dietary requirements and existing health conditions, medications, etc. is crucial, for instance elderly individuals who suffer from high cholesterol levels should naturally not try to gain weight by drinking full cream milk.

How the Elderly Can Lose Bodyweight Safely

For elderly individuals to lose weight safely they must do so gradually so as to reduce fat mass whilst maintaining muscle mass without polypharmacy (the use of multiple medications).  Eat a balanced diet. As you get older, you need to eat less food in order to maintain your weight, but eating the correct types of food are important. Eat foods that are high in protein and high in fiber (i.e. whole grain bread, beans, vegetables, fruit), and remember to stay hydrated.

Tips for Losing Weight Safely

  • Engage in regular, light cardiovascular exercise, and if feasible, light weight workouts to promote muscle development and retention.
  • Gradually reduce caloric intake (without going below 1,600 calories per day) with emphasis placed on cutting out foods that are high in cholesterol.
  • Understand emotional triggers that result in a craving for food and work at eliminating them.
  • Eat six to eight small meals rather than three large meals to promote a higher metabolism so as to burn fat mass more rapidly.
  • When possible walk rather than drive or catch public transportation to increase heart rate.

The elderly must be mindful of their weight if they’re to lead enjoying, fulfilling lives for as long as possible.

(1) Nutritional Deficiency

(2) Why Do Seniors Lose Weight?

(3) Nutrition–mechanisms of immunosuppression

(4) Obesity and Cardiovascular Disease: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association

by Adam Swenson

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