29 Nov 2020

Age no barrier to successful weight loss, study shows

From Sunday Morning, 4:22 pm on 29 November 2020

Lifestyle changes to manage weight loss are effective in reducing obesity regardless of age, a new study from the University of Warwick in England has found, which dispels myths about effectiveness of weight loss in older people.

Lead author Dr Thomas Barber of Warwick Medical School discussed the implications on Sunday Morning.  

Person standing on weigh scales, tape measure in the foreground.

Photo: 123RF

"We did a retrospective study among the patients who attend our hospital-based obesity service in Coventry in the UK, we split the groups up into two, according to age. The first group was the under 60s and the second group was those 60 and over, and we were interested in the success of weight loss in these two different groups based on lifestyle interventions.

"All of them saw dieticians, they had dietary input and support, some of them had some psychology, and many of them had medical input as well. And what we found was that there was really no difference in the success of weight loss between these two groups based on age. So the take-home message... is that when it comes to the success of weight loss through lifestyle intervention in a hospital-based setting, age doesn't really play a role, certainly between the ages of 60 and 78, it really doesn't appear to have an affect.

"We need to acknowledge that we do live in an ageist society, and rather than neglecting attempts at weight loss in the older population, we should be embracing this and promoting this rather than holding back."

Dr Thomas Barber

Dr Thomas Barber Photo: Supplied.

Barber says wider societal attitudes feed into complacency and defeatist and attitudes in individuals.

"And maybe healthcare professionals are more reluctant to refer older patients for weight interventions when really there's no justifications for that whatsoever. If anything really we should be promoting weight loss attempts and provisions of interventions in the older population, rather than holding back."

Losing the weight is well worth the effort, with over 50 diseases and conditions that can be comorbid, or present together with obesity, including mental health problems, and a greater risk of premature death.

"As we get older we're more likely to develop those 50 comorbidities, you can think of weight gain and obesity a bit like an accelerated form of ageing - when you throw obesity into the equation that really accelerates that process."

Barber says there are many aspects of lifestyle that affect weight, not just diet.

"People don't appreciate that how much we sleep is a massive factor, if we're sleep deprived then it makes it incredibly difficult to lose weight. The experts tell us that we should all be sleeping around 7.5 hours per night.

"And clearly a healthy diet; not so much restricting what we eat, it's eating the healthy foods. So we should all be optimising the fibre we have in our diet. There's studies that show that in the West we are fibre-impoverished, we should all be eating about 50 per cent more fibre than what we do. And if we optimise our fibre intake we can nurture a healthy gut flora, the bacteria that live within our gut.

"And when we say exercise, what it really means is avoidance of sedentariness and maintaining physical activity, it's really, really important."

Defeatist ageist attitudes are misplaced in a society where we live longer than we used to, he says.

"When we look at the kind of conditions we manage in our modern day healthcare it is the chronic conditions, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory conditions, which form the major part. And the longer we live the older we get, the more likely we are to develop those conditions.

"There's a big emphasis now on healthy ageing; that's maintaining wellness and wellbeing into older age. And it's particularly important that as we are getting older that we do aim to achieve that.

"There are other studies published looking at the older age population in other settings, which have also shown, consistent with our own data, that being older is not really a barrier to losing weight. There was even one study that showed that older people were even better at adhering to a lifestyle programme, and achieving successful weight loss compared with their younger counterparts."