Obesity in Seniors: A Growing Problem

Obesity in Seniors: A Growing Problem

You’ve likely seen many news reports about the obesity epidemic in America – especially how it’s become a public health crisis. There’s no doubt that Americans are carrying more weight than ever before. But why is this happening? And what does it mean for the health and wellness of millions of elderly adults who are obese or overweight?

The obesity rates among seniors doubled over the 30-year period between 1988 and 2018, rising from 22% to 40%. But what’s more concerning is that obesity rates among working-age adults rose at an even faster rate, meaning that in the coming years, the obesity epidemic among seniors will be higher.1

Recent studies have found that a person’s Body Mass Index at the age of 54 is more strongly associated with mortality at older ages, even if that person has lost weight. That might be due to the damage the heart and other bodily systems sustained during the period of obesity, when every part of the body must work harder to maintain baseline functioning.2

What is Obesity?

Obesity is defined by the World Health Organization as “an abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health.”3 Obesity or being overweight is determined by a person’s Body Mass Index, or BMI. This is based on a person’s weight divided by a person’s height. Though this is not always an accurate assessment, especially for those who have a high level of muscle mass, it’s a good rule of thumb to determine BMI.

·        Those with a BMI under 18.5 are considered underweight.

·        A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered a healthy weight.

·        Those who are overweight have a BMI between 25 and 29.9.

·        Those with a BMI over 30 are considered obese.

To put that in perspective, let’s look at the weight of someone who is 5’9”. Under 124 pounds makes them underweight, while a healthy weight falls between 125 and 168 pounds. Between 169 and 202, they are considered overweight. And if they are over 203 pounds, they are considered obese.

Here is the formula for BMI: weight (lb) / [height (in)]2 x 703.

The Problems with Obesity Among Seniors

Obesity can lead to problems for anyone, but those problems can be much more pronounced in the elderly. According to the Rising Obesity in an Aging America report, there are significant health and social consequences for those who are overweight or obese, and those problems tend to get worse as we get older. The most common problems include:

·        A higher risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Carrying extra weight makes every part of the body work harder, especially the heart. Other organs are affected as well, such as the pancreas, which tries to make enough insulin to accommodate the rising levels of glucose in the blood. Diabetes, high cholesterol, heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiac or vascular events are more common among those who are obese.

·        A higher rate of disability. The heavier you are, the tougher it can be to move around. And the excess weight on your frame can lead to problems with joints and muscles. Over time, these issues can lead to serious pain and limited mobility, eventually culminating in disability.

·        More difficulty finding proper care. An unfortunate reality of today’s medical system is that many symptoms that would be very concerning are often dismissed as a result of obesity. “Just lose weight and the problem will go away” might be true in some cases, but it might also dismiss a serious problem, such as cancer. This bias can delay treatment and make it more difficult to find the proper care.

·        Higher levels of chronic pain. Those who have a higher BMI tend to experience more pain in their joints, muscles, and bones over time. This consequence tends to persist even if they get down to a healthy weight in their later years. Higher levels of chronic pain can lead to more medication use, depression, anxiety, disability, and even early death. 

·        Increased difficulty for caregivers. Someone who is larger is harder to care for in a physical sense, as they are more difficult to assist in moving, including turning them in bed or lifting them for a transfer from bed to wheelchair. This increased difficulty for the family caregiver might mean that though they try their best, they simply don’t have the physical strength to provide their loved one with the care they need.

·        More likely to move into nursing homes. Perhaps due to the difficulties in caring for the person at home, many of those who suffer from obesity wind up going into nursing homes or assisted living facilities at a higher rate than their peers, and they might need these facilities earlier than others do.

·        More rapid aging. Did you know that the more weight you carry, the more rapidly you age? Biological aging occurs more than two years faster among those with obesity, especially among women. This means that chronic illnesses that are more common among the elderly might show up earlier in life.

·        Lower life expectancy. Many developed countries are making great strides in increasing their life expectancy, but the United States is lagging behind on that goal. Obesity might be to blame.

·        Greater risk of falls. As you gain weight, your center of gravity shifts. The same thing happens as you lose weight. During those times, you are more likely to lose your footing. To protect yourself from the consequences of falls, look to an emergency button alarm to help. If you suffer an accident, press the button and reach out for live help 24/7.

Why is Obesity Increasing Among the Elderly?

According to Public Health, the obesity epidemic is fed by a variety of problems:4

·        Larger portions. The restaurant portions of any given meal tend to be at least twice of what a recommended portion actually is. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that the average American ate 20% more calories in 2000 than they did in 1983, and that number has only gone up in the two decades since. Our overall consumption of added fats, meat, and grains has risen too.

·        The quality of the food. The rise of fast food chains throughout the United States and the rates of obesity going up are definitely related. The World Health Organization found that fast food consumption usually means a higher BMI. And today, 11% of the average American diet is made up of fast food meals. This food is so bad for you that the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that your life can be shortened by eating fast food even if you aren’t overweight at all.5

·        Less physical labor. As we are eating more and more, we are moving less and less. Thirty years ago, much of the workforce was in some sort of physical job, which means moving around and getting exercise on a daily basis. Today, only about 20% of jobs require us to move around a moderate amount, compared to 50% of jobs in the 1960s.6

·        Less exercise in general. Even outside of the workplace, we’re not moving enough. The CDC says that 80% of Americans don’t get enough exercise. Americans walk much less than those in other industrialized countries, often preferring to take a vehicle to their destination rather than walking to it.7 Much of this is due to the “car culture” in the U.S. but the lack of a good walking infrastructure, such as safe sidewalks, could also be a culprit. 

What Can Seniors Do About Obesity?

While dropping weight under a doctor’s supervision is certainly a very good way to reduce or even reverse some of the serious issues with obesity, that’s not the only way to improve health while carrying extra pounds.

·        Take the right medications. Research has found that prescription medications for high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels work extremely well in reducing cardiovascular risks. Good medication adherence is known to lead to healthier lives for those with diabetes. Talk to your doctor about the proper medications, attend all follow-up appointments, and take your medications on time, every time.

·        Eat a healthy diet. Though many fad diets will leave you feeling hungry and eventually actually lead to overeating, healthy diets followed carefully over a long period of time can produce steady weight loss that actually sticks. The Mediterranean diet is an excellent example of a diet that leaves you feeling fulfilled but with heart-healthy foods that have the added bonus of weight loss over time.

·        Cut out sugars, added fats, and fast food. A diet is great about giving you a guideline for what to put into your body. But you should also pay attention to the things you should keep out of your body, including added sugars and fats. And avoid fast food as much as you can.

·        Stay safe at all times. Those who are obese might have a more difficult time with recovery from injury or illness. A hip fracture or head injury as the result of a fall can be even more devastating for those carrying extra pounds. To protect yourself from the dire consequences of lying on the floor waiting for help to arrive, consider adding a medical alert pendant to your day-to-day life. Medical alert devices can work wonders for your peace of mind as you strive for better whole health. 

·        Exercise more. This might seem like the most daunting tip of all. If you are already obese, moving around can be a challenge. But it’s important to remember that exercise doesn’t have to mean a long session at the gym or a mile-long walk around the neighborhood. The key to exercise is consistency. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week, which breaks down into about 30 minutes each day. But that can be broken down further – 10 minute increments might seem more manageable. You could achieve this through something as simple as taking the stairs or parking further from the door when you run errands. Build up to it slowly but steadily over time and then stay with it for real results.

Those with obesity might suffer from other health problems that are clearly related to it, such as heart disease or diabetes. And of course, medical emergencies are entirely possible if you suffer from any chronic condition. An alert system for elderly adults can help by providing seniors with protection and peace of mind. Did you know that medical alert devices are not just fall alarms? They are also there for help if you have any emergency, health-related or not.

Alert1 wishes all your Golden Years to be happy, healthy, and safe!