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Ability to lose weight is not affected by age

Contrary to what many believe, a study finds that weight management is not more difficult for older adults.

While people often assume that losing weight is harder later in life, a new study concludes that this is not so. The research offers encouragement for older adults hoping to reap the health benefits of maintaining a healthy weight.

In an obesity program conducted at a hospital in the United Kingdom, weight loss was unaffected by age, with statistically equivalent results for people younger and older than 60.

Senior study author Dr. Thomas Barber, the scientific lead of the Human Metabolism Research Unit at the Warwick Medical School, in the U.K., explains that for people whose health would benefit from weight loss:

“Weight loss is important at any age, but as we get older, we’re more likely to develop the weight-related comorbidities of obesity. Many of these are similar to the effects of aging, so you could argue that the relevance of weight loss becomes heightened as we get older, and this is something that we should embrace.”

The study’s authors write that weight loss may help older individuals address more than 50 comorbidities common with age, including diabetes, osteoarthritis, and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Increased mortality and a general lack of well-being in older adults are also associated with obesity.

The results of the new study appear in Clinical Endocrinology.

“There are a number of reasons why people may discount weight loss in older people,” says Dr. Barber. “These include an ‘ageist’ perspective that weight loss is not relevant to older people and misconceptions of reduced ability of older people to lose weight through dietary modification and increased exercise.”

The study provides evidence that weight loss programs administered by medical professionals, in particular, have value.

“Older people may feel that hospital-based obesity services are not for them,” Dr. Barber acknowledges. Nonetheless, he suggests, “Service providers and policymakers should appreciate the importance of weight loss in older people with obesity for the maintenance of health and well-being and the facilitation of healthy aging.”

The study shows, Dr. Barber says, that “Age, per se, should not contribute towards clinical decisions regarding the implementation of lifestyle management [in] older people.”

The team analyzed the medical records of 242 randomly selected people who had participated in the obesity service offered by the Warwickshire Institute for the Study of Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolism (WISDEM) program between 2005 and 2016.

The researchers divided the cohort into two groups: people under 60 and people aged 60–78. All participants had morbid obesity at the outset, with BMI measurements over 40. The analysis compared weight loss outcomes in the two groups.

Participants in the program managed their weight with dietary changes and more exercise, and medical professionals had customized the program for each individual’s needs. Psychological support and encouragement were also provided.

The researchers took weight measurements before and after participation in the WISDEM program.

While the older group spent slightly less time in the program — 33.6 months as opposed to 41.5 months — weight loss in both groups was statistically equivalent.

People in the older group lost an average of 7.3% of their body weight, while those in the under-60 group lost 6.9%.

Given the health benefits that can result from weight management in people of any age with obesity and especially those who are already experiencing age-related health issues, Dr. Barber concludes:

“Age should be no barrier to lifestyle management of obesity. Rather than putting up barriers to older people accessing weight loss programs, we should be proactively facilitating that process. To do otherwise would risk further and unnecessary neglect of older people through societal ageist misconceptions.”

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