Even though people celebrate their own weight loss, it’s not always healthy.
Weight loss in older adults is associated with early death and life-limiting conditions, a new study shows.
Weight gain, on the other hand, was not associated with mortality, according to the study published Monday in JAMA Network Open.
Healthcare professionals know they worry when older people with health conditions lose weight, but researchers haven’t fully understood the impact of weight change on healthy older people, according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Monira Hussain, a clinical epidemiologist and senior public researcher. Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
The study involved nearly 17,000 adults aged 70 and over in Australia and more than 2,000 adults in the United States aged 65 and over. All of those who participated in the study were weighed during their annual health checkup between 2010 and 2014, according to the study.
“Our study found that even a 5% weight loss increases mortality risk, especially in older men,” Hussain said.
Weight gain in healthy older people, on the other hand, showed no association, she added.
The association was found across starting weights, meaning people medically classified as obese also had an increased risk of losing weight, said Perri Halperin, director of clinical nutrition at Mount Sinai Health System. Halperin did not participate in the study.
The study was able to take health issues into account at baseline. It excluded people with conditions such as cardiovascular disease, dementia, physical disabilities or chronic illnesses, Hussain said.
“He also excluded those recently hospitalized, which is important because hospitalization is often followed by weight loss due to acute conditions,” Halperin said in an email.
But the study was unable to distinguish whether those involved lost weight intentionally or not, Hussain added.
“No questions were asked about changes in activity level and diet quality between the baseline study visit and subsequent study visits, so we have no information on how which these factors could have impacted results,” Haperin said.
Weight loss can be a risk factor for mortality because it can signal underlying problems.
Weight loss can be a harbinger of conditions such as cancer and dementia, and it’s “often linked to reduced appetite influenced by inflammation and hormones,” Hussain said.
Underlying chronic health conditions can also trigger weight loss in older adults by affecting appetite, metabolism and eating habits, Halperin said. Mobility issues and medication side effects can also affect weight.
Weight changes can also signal lifestyle issues, Halperin said.
“Social isolation is one of the biggest contributors to weight loss in older people. Other concerns include financial constraints and pain and discomfort,” she added.
In studies like these, it’s important to remember that correlation is not causation, Halperin said. Weight loss was associated with mortality, which means it is correlated – but it does not mean that weight loss caused a person’s death.
“It’s also important to say that the opposite cannot be extrapolated or recommended – that is, gaining weight would not necessarily decrease your mortality risk,” she said in an email. “As always, discuss your weight changes with your doctor or other healthcare professional.”
Take-out meals are for seniors to monitor their weight change, Halperin said.
“If they notice a decrease in the number on the scale (weight loss) or maybe pants that used to be snug and looser (decline in waist circumference),” she added, “bring to their doctor for possible screening or additional tests.”
But the advice is also for the medical community, she said. Physicians and health care providers should be aware that weight changes require further investigation.