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Is getting fat inevitable as we age?

by Sonia Javelosa-Silos, M.D.


As the decades go by, you start noticing you are heavier than before. It seems like the weight gain creeps up on you without you realizing it. Your arms and legs seem to be heavier and less toned, and your waistline refuses to whittle down no matter how many sit-ups you do. You eat the same as you used to, but sadly, you’re still gaining weight.

What’s going on?

Mia Fojas, M.D., an endocrinologist at Medical Center Manila, answers why these changes occur with age. “As a person get older, the body’s metabolism naturally slows down. You don’t get to burn as many calories as when you were younger. So if your caloric intake is similar to when [it was] say, in your 20’s, then the extra calories not burned by the body simply end up as body fat,” Dr. Fojas tells us.

For elderly men, weight gain is also partly caused by a general decrease in muscle mass. Studies show that an average male will lose as much as 10 percent of his muscle mass per decade, with the rate of loss increasing from ages 50 to 70. “As muscle mass diminishes, the required daily amount of calories needed also goes down. Because muscle burns a lot of calories, it follows that the less muscle you have, the less calories you burn,” Dr. Fojas explains.

For older women, much of the weight gain occurs during the peri- and post-menopausal years. On average, women gain about 12 to 15 pounds between the ages of 45 to 55. This added weight doesn’t distribute evenly throughout the body but rather tends to accumulate around the abdominal area. Declining hormones contribute to this phenomenon, according to Dr. Fojas. “As the ovaries stop producing estrogen, the body tries to find other places to find estrogen. Fat cells can produce estrogen, so the body works harder to covert more calories into fat cells in order to increase estrogen levels,” she explains. The result: More fat cells leads to weight gain.

Age-related weight gain is therefore a natural phenomenon, the combined result of a slowing down of our metabolism, a decrease in muscle mass, and changes in body fat distribution. Fat increases more towards the center of the body, particularly around the abdomen. Body fat can potentially increase by as much as 30 percent more. But does this inevitably lead to obesity? Not really, Dr. Fojas says. “Although it is more common for obesity to occur in older individuals, it is not an inevitable part of aging,” she clarifies. “There are many factors that affect adult obesity, and most of them can be controlled.”

Lifestyle changes

People tend to become more sedentary as they age, and engage in less exercise than when they were younger. Joint problems, reduced flexibility and health problems can sometimes affect an older person’s activity level. This reduced activity contributes to the general increase in weight. Hence, exercise becomes more important, as it mitigates much of the weight gain brought about by aging. Activities help increase muscle size and burn fat, offsetting the age-related loss of muscle. Aerobic exercise can help burn more calories and lose unwanted pounds. Resistance training, such as lifting weights, has been found to increase muscle strength and boost metabolism.

Controlling the amount of food you eat is a must. A person’s caloric requirements lessens with age. On average, a person will need around 200 less calories in his 50s as compared to when he was 30. You don’t have to starve yourself, but rather be smart about your food choices. Go for healthy eating by taking in less calories without sacrificing nutrition. This means more fiber, low-fat foods, lean meat, and lots of fruits and vegetables.

Body composition depends a lot on genetics too. Genetic studies have found that polymorphisms or natural variations in certain genes controlling appetite and metabolism can increase an individual’s predisposition for accumulating body fat. Like many other medical conditions, however, obesity is the result of not just genetics, but lifestyle factors as well. Obesity may develop, but only under certain conditions. With proper diet and exercise, the development of obesity can still be minimized.

Based on the 2010 global prevalence of obesity gathered by the International Obesity Taskforce for the International Association for the Study of Obesity, the Philippines ranks 133rd in the world, with 2.1 percent adult males and 4.4 percent adult females with obesity. In contrast, the USA ranks 18th with 32.2 percent and 35.5 percent respectively, accounting for a third of their population affected by obesity.

Our country may not have much of a problem with obesity at the moment, but adult obesity is of particular concern because of its association with many chronic diseases. “Excess weight increases the risk of hypertension, stroke, coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It is also a risk factor in some forms of cancer like breast and colorectal cancer,” Dr. Fojas cautions. “In addition to these, obesity increases blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and hastens the degeneration of cartilage and bone in the joints.” All of the conditions mentioned occur more frequently in the older age group as well, which makes weight management crucial.

For tips on keeping weight off as the years pile on, get a copy of the September issue of HealthToday from major bookstores and newsstands.

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