How to Deal with Aging and Being Overweight

obesity fat linesMany people believe that weight gain is an inevitable part of growing older. This is not true, but as we age, maintaining an ideal weight becomes a more complex problem. At the same time, it becomes a more important goal. Often, medical conditions that are associated with aging are made more difficult to manage by obesity. Osteoarthritis, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions, such as hypertension and congestive failure, are among the diseases linked to excess weight. They are also more common problems as we age.

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that approximately 35% of Americans aged 65 and older were obese. This represented over 8 million people. Aging and obesity both contribute to increased costs in the health care system, so this is actually a public health concern. Gaining weight as we age is due in part to the fact that metabolism slows naturally. However, several things can be done to lessen this problem.

First and always, stay alert to the early signs of weight-related medical problems. If chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes are detected and treated early, their serious consequences can be avoided or delayed. This means regular preventive checkups and lifestyle changes. Maintain good communication with your primary care doctor and ask for a referral to a bariatric clinic if it is medically necessary. If your physician suspects that weight gain is due to a specific problem, seek corrective therapies, such as underactive thyroid treatment.

Your activity level effects both body composition and metabolism. This is true for all ages but it becomes more important as we get older. Lower levels of activity lead to a decline in muscle mass and consequent changes in body composition. For most individuals, activity levels reduce with age and this can become a destructive cycle: lower activity levels lead to weight gain which causes even more loss of mobility. If you or a loved one is one of the 8 million+ overweight American seniors, here are some things you can do to help solve the problem.

Remain active. Choose an activity that will keep you moving every day. The simplest is probably walking but activities like swimming, bicycling or supervised aerobics for seniors can do just as well.

Seniors exercising in poolBegin lifting weights. Resistance training, such as lifting weights, will build muscle mass, as well as increase your metabolic rate. Increasing muscle mass lowers your BMI (body mass index), the measure used to determine if you are obese. This is good advice at any age and seniors are no exception. Weight training is now recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine for all people over 50. Even a frail, older person can improve their balance, walking ability and general mobility with proper weight training.

If you have not exercised for a long time, it is a good idea to do this under supervision. Look for a hospital program, a bariatric clinic or a physician run program that offers weight training. Be realistic about this- you are not going to the Olympics, but you can do a great deal to maintain and improve your strength and mobility.

Change your diet and eat more nutrient dense foods. This sounds like pious advice but it is especially important as we age. Your body needs fewer calories, but just as many nutrients. Nutrient-dense foods pack a lot of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients into a small amount of calories. Choose a wide range of fruits and vegetables, whole grains like brown rice, low-fat dairy products and lean meats. Limit or cut out white bread, rice, and pasta made from refined grains, butter, shortening and solid fats and alcohol.

Consider weight loss surgery. When other measures fail, bariatric surgery may provide an answer. At one time these procedures were performed as “open” surgery, requiring a large incision. This made surgical complications more likely and reduced the usefulness of bariatric surgery in older patients. The advent of laparoscopic surgery techniques has changed that dramatically. Age does not appear to make laparoscopic bariatric surgery more hazardous, and the benefits to older patients can be significant.

Dr. Christian Birkedal
Dr. Christian Birkedal
Because many diseases common in older patients are also obesity-related, the benefit to older patients must not be overlooked. Gastric sleeve, gastric bypass and gastric band surgeries are now performed as laparoscopic procedures. Time spent in hospital is reduced, there is less pain and laparoscopy recovery times are shorter. Highly-skilled surgeons like Dr. Birkedal have performed thousands of successful laparoscopic surgical procedures including bariatric surgery done on many patients aged 65 and older. You should investigate this option if your medical conditions have not responded to other therapies.

Contributed by Dr. Christian Birkedal and published with permission by

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