The statistics are jarring, but perhaps they shouldn’t come as a surprise. About one-third of adults in this country are obese. Even more frightening are obesity’s implications for the over-65 set, who are at risk for additional chronic diseases as their age and weight climb. But it’s an avoidable dilemma, so long as seniors take the right precautions.
As a registered dietician, Denice Ferko-Adams is well aware of the correlation between diet and exercise, both of which are compromised in a modern world. “The older population didn’t grow up with regular exercise,” says Ferko-Adams. “But their lifestyle was likely to be much more physically demanding—versus the younger generations, who must make an effort to get their exercise in.”
Ferko-Adams is also the director of Villanova University’s new MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education, which offers continuing-education programs on obesity and obesity-related disease. She references the lack of structured exercise for many seniors. “It’s one of the factors that contributes to weight gain among this group of people, who may also be dealing with physical disabilities, further compounding the issue,” she says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than one-third of all adults fail to meet the recommendations for aerobic physical activity, and 23 percent reported no leisure-time physical activity at all in the preceding month. Such statistics are difficult to combat for many reasons.
“People tend to be more sedentary as they age, and their metabolic requirements are lower,” says Dr. William Zirker, chief of geriatrics at Crozer-Chester Medical Center and medical director of senior health services for Crozer-Keystone Health System. “Think about throwing stuff into a furnace and burning through it in your younger years. You throw the same amount of stuff onto a smaller fire when you’re older, you’re not changing that into fuel. You’re accumulating fat.”
And with an empty nest, preparing healthy meals is often not a priority. “At a young age, people’s activity levels mean eating more calories in their 20s and 30s,” says Ferko-Adams. “As they age, their activity level decreases, but they’re not changing their eating habits. They need to make sure they’re still getting the nutrients they need, in the right doses.”
Protein is a must, as are vitamins like B12, a deficiency of which can contribute to aging. As we get older, our ability to absorb B12 from foods decreases. Without certain dietary modifications or supplements, anemia and a host of other symptoms—shakiness, fatigue and an unsteady gait, to name a few—can settle in for the long haul, making exercise all the more difficult.
There’s also an increasingly clear link between obesity and insulin resistance, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes. High blood pressure, hyperlipidemia, heart disease and gastrointestinal cancers are also associated with obesity.
The physiological changes associated with aging are obstacles for even the healthiest individuals, especially women. “After menopause, women have a change in their metabolic rates and fat distribution,” says Zirker. “There’s a loss of lean body mass and more fat in different places, even if you don’t gain weight.”
Beginning in our late 30s and early 40s, an estimated 10 percent of our muscle tissue is lost per decade—about a quarter-pound a year. And as joints and bone health begin to deteriorate, extra fat on one’s frame can result in greater immobilization for up to 44 million Americans, or 55 percent of those 50 and older.
Now, the good news: Studies show an increase in muscle tissue among those in their 80s who’ve adopted a regular running, walking or weight-lifting regimen. But seniors need to know their capabilities and health restrictions before embarking on any sort of earnest exercise routine.
“They should see their physician and have an evaluation. They may want to have a stress test,” Zirker says. “Most people can do a 20-minute walk without a full workup to it, but you don’t want to go out and start shoveling snow and then have a heart attack because you’re not used to rigorous exercise.”
• 34% of Americans are obese
• 31% of people in Pennsylvania are obese
• 12 states had an obesity percentage of more than 30 percent in 2010
• 0 states had an obesity percentage of more than 30 percent in 2000
• 24% of all residents over 20 in Delaware, Chester and Montgomery counties were obese in 2008 (on average)