Many think it's just natural to put on weight as one ages, but some health experts say it may be the worst time in a person's life to put on weight and get out of shape. Yet unfortunately, more and more seniors are becoming obese.
According to Dr. Catherine Loria, nutritional epidemiologist in the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's Division of Cardiovascular Sciences, Bethesda, Md., the obesity rate among men greater than 60 years old is 37 percent and women greater than 60 is 42 percent. And data from the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reveals adults age 60 and over were more likely to be obese than younger adults.
A myriad of health risks accompany obesity, health experts say. These include hypertension or high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis and diabetes. For the 50 plus crowd, health experts say obesity can increase these risks even further.
"Probably one of the main considerations there for the 50 plus population is that the conditions have had longer to do damage to the body," said Dr. Vance Blackburn, a physician in Birmingham, Ala., who has conducted research for the American Academy of Family Physicians.
"Another factor is that people who are overweight tend to have multiple problems, like high blood pressure or hypertension and diabetes. As you start adding all of those things together then the health risks significantly increase."
And it doesn't help that "the body's metabolism slows down as we age. I often have people say they are eating the same things they were eating before but they are gaining weight. And for those who are obese over 50, they are less likely because of fatigue or joint pain to be active."
Among the trouble areas:
"In the United States, it has been estimated that overweight and obesity contribute to 14 percent of all cancer deaths in men and 20 percent in women," said Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, Ga.
According to Doyle, overweight and obesity clearly are associated with increased risk for developing many cancers, including cancers of the breast in postmenopausal women, colon and rectum, endo metrium, adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, kidney and pancreas.
High Triglycerides and Cholesterol
"Obesity definitely increases the rates of high triglycerides in the blood and that's a component of the cholesterol levels. It also tends to lower the good cholesterol,"Blackburn said. "Those things are part of the risk factors that can increase heart disease."
In addition to the risks of high triglycerides and dangerous cholesterol levels, Dr. Robert H. Eckel, former president of the American Heart Association, encourages people who may be obese to be tested for obstructive sleep apnea. "This can lead to a greater risk of heart disease," Eckel said. "This can be treated. This is an important area that is underestimated."
"The risk of diabetes almost exponentially increases with weight gain as we become older," said Dr. Jack Dersarkissian, regional lead for Adult Weight Management for the Southern California Permanente Group. "As we all get older, we lose our lean muscle mass, so we may stay the same weight, but it is fat. And it's fat in the visceral area, which is inside the belly. That's the most dangerous type of fat. Diabetes in and by itself really cascades into a lot of other diseases, like heart attacks and kidney failure and increase of stroke."
Dr. Patience White, vice president for public health of the Arthritis Foundation, said one in three people over 65 have osteoarthritis, or OA. "If you are obese, she said, "You are going to have a 66 percent chance of getting OA."
Put those numbers together and White predicts a "silver tsunami" of people with osteoarthritis, or a breakdown of cartilage in the joints. At this point, 27 million Americans have OA. But by the year 2030, that number could jump to as high as 68 million. The consequence of osteoarthritis is pain and, if the condition worsens, joint replacement. "When you no longer have any cartilage left, as the rate of obesity and OA goes up, the number of people who get joint replacements goes up," White said.
High Blood Pressure or Hypertension
"With hypertension, as we gain weight, our blood pressure can go up by 10 to 20 points," Dersarkissian said. "If you are 200 pounds and you lose 20 pounds, that can improve diabetes and blood pressure risks and reduce the amount of blood pressure medication your are on."
Fortunately, there is a remedy for obesity for many people, including the 50 plus crowd. While it may not reverse an existing medical condition, the remedy may help prevent the onset of certain conditions.
The treatment: lose weight and keep the weight off.