With the many preconceived barriers to weight loss - I’ve got big bones / yo-yo dieting messed up my metabolism / I’m allergic to lettuce and so on - new research shows we can at least cross one barrier off the list, age.
Leading the research was Dr Thomas Barber of the University of Warwick who highlights two ‘ageist’ reasons why we may dismiss the idea of helping older people to tackle weight loss. Firstly, says Barber, there is the perception that it is too hard to achieve and secondly that it is irrelevant, even when pounds are shed. He takes issue with both such notions.
Involving over 260 participants, most of whom were morbidly obese (a body mass index BMI over 40), Barber’s team found weight loss success was as good for those under 60 years of age, as those between 60 and 78. In other words, older people absolutely can lower their body weight, if they need and want to.
Then comes the question of whether there is any point in doing so. Should we not just let it all hang-out, hang-over and slide into a well-padded dotage?
As the study, published in the journal Clinical Endocrinology points out, there are more than fifty complications of obesity that can be lessened as we lose weight, including type two diabetes, depression, and osteoarthritis. Since complications associated with obesity are more likely to develop as we move through the decades, Barber suggests the need to control our weight, is heightened as we age, and should be embraced.
Nobody would suggest frogmarching elderly relatives off to health stores, ramming intermittent fasting books through their letter boxes, or stocking their cupboards with Keto-Friendly foods but this research does raise the important point that rather than creating obstacles to and ignoring the need for older people to access sensible weight loss programmes, we could consider proactively helping them do so.
Which brings us to the six-million-dollar question, what is a sensible weight loss programme for this time in life and where can we find one? The Warwickshire research participants achieved their success through hospital-based, one-to-one advice on healthy eating choices, encouragement of appropriate physical activity and psychological support to help them adapt to their lifestyle changes.
Ideally, this approach would be delivered to all who need it by a dietitian, a qualified fitness instructor and psychologist; something budgets and logistics make impossible. But there are other ways of putting it into practice and a good place to start is with the Age UK website, www.ageuk.org.uk.
They provide excellent advice on healthy eating and exercise, tailored for older people. If friends or family were able and willing, they could provide help with implementing both these elements and provide the vital emotional input to support the necessary changes.
Every person’s situation is different and checking with a GP before embarking on weight loss is important, especially if taking medications that are affected by it, which is the case with some diabetes drugs.
As the University of Warwick team conclude, when it comes to obesity in our twilight years “to simply look on and do nothing, would risk further and unnecessary neglect of older people through societal ageist misconceptions”.
It is a strong statement but perhaps it is time to start thinking seriously about their message. To consider whether we can help anyone, we know to make changes in the way they eat and exercise, which could leave them feeling happier and healthier in the months and years to come.