Weight Loss and Older Adults: A Caregiver’s Guide

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By Sarah Jennings

Sarah Jennings has been taking care of others her whole life. In 2005, she moved her mother into her family home. She uses her personal experience to share with others about caring for the elderly. She currently writes for Brookdale assisted living

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For those of us that specialize in the care of older adults – whether we work in an assisted living facility or provide in-home care for our elderly parents – concerns about weight loss can manifest themselves in different ways. 

For some senior citizens, shedding a few pounds through healthier eating and the incorporation of a more physically active lifestyle can be tremendously effective in prolonging and increasing the quality of life.

On the other hand, in some instances the loss of weight among older adults – especially if it occurs in a rapid fashion – is the cause for major concern and a sign that there may be some potentially lethal underlying issues that must be dealt with immediately. 

If you observe rapid weight loss in an older adult, it is important to take action quickly.  Drastic weight decreases are a warning sign for many serious maladies including cancer, dementia, serious gastrointestinal issues, bowel diseases, and depression.

With that in mind, this article is intended to give caregivers of all varieties some food for thought when helping to manage an older adult’s weight, with a focus on healthy weight loss (while noting that it is important to be on the lookout for unhealthy weight loss as described above).

Healthy Weight Loss

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For many older adults who never had to worry about their weight during their younger years, issues related to weight gain begin popping up as they approach their golden years.  As we age, our metabolism begins to slow – and this is especially true of older women – and without some lifestyle adjustments to compensate for this change, extra pounds can begin to accumulate.

And another thing for caregivers to keep in mind is that even without a noticeable increase in weight, there could still be some issues if physical activity and a healthier diet aren’t given the proper consideration.  For the average person, muscle mass decreases from about 45% of total body weight as a young person, to less than a 25% by age 70.  This means that without gaining or losing a single pound, an older adult can see their percentage of body fat double in a short period of time.

Excess body fat = shorter life

The importance of these issues cannot be stressed enough, especially for caregivers hoping to do everything they can to improve the quality and length of an older adult’s life.  Recent research suggests that where a person falls on the Body-Mass-Index (BMI) scale can have a direct correlation with their expected lifespan.  Men who possess a BMI higher than 22 can expect to die four years earlier on average than those with a healthier weight-to-height ratio.  The trend for women is not quite as drastic, but still noticeable; women with an unhealthy BMI (higher than 25) live on average two years less than their healthier counterparts.

It should come as no surprise that overweight and under-toned older people lead shorter, less enjoyable lives, as excess body fat is seen as a key contributor to diabetes, heart disease, many forms of cancer (including the often lethal breast and colon varieties), arthritis, and lung disease.

One distressing issue that researchers believe is a major factor in the notable increase in overweight seniors is the propensity for solutions to health and body issues to be sought in the form of a pill.  As prescription medication usage has skyrocketed in recent years, healthy eating and exercise rates have decreased.  This disturbing trend suggests that society – and in particular older adults – are expecting their cholesterol, blood pressure and other prescription medications to take the place of healthy living practices such as portion control and regular physical activity.  As a caregiver, it is crucial that you help your older adult understand that while certain prescription drugs can be beneficial in some instances, they are no substitute for an overall healthy lifestyle.

It's not too late

The good news, however, is that further research indicates that it is rarely too late for older adults to take advantage of the benefits brought by proper nutrition and regular exercise.  Regardless if one’s personal history includes less than optimal eating and activity practices, the incorporation of a healthy diet and physical activity has immediate and long-term benefits.

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