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Why do we gain weight as we get older? And, our top tips on how to avoid both

Posted on 10 September 2020

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Key Takeaways

  • Being obese appears to accelerate the ageing process, and is a significant risk factor for most age-related diseases.
  • Ageing, meanwhile, causes metabolic changes that make it harder to avoid weight gain.
  • Exercising regularly, being watchful of what you eat, as well as taking certain dietary supplements can all help protect your metabolism against the effects of ageing.

As we age, so does our metabolism. Older people have to be a lot more mindful of what they eat to avoid putting on weight, and being overweight is worse for your health if you are older. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that being overweight makes you age faster, resulting in a vicious cycle. Why does this happen, and more importantly, what can you do to avoid it?

The Vicious Cycle

Fat is more than just a storage system for excess calories: fat tissue also plays an important role in the immune response, hormonal function and the regulation of body temperature. For this reason it is not just the quantity, but also the location and the quality of fat tissue that can have significant consequences for our health.

Regardless of whether we are lean or overweight, we experience a change in fat distribution as we age. The amount of fat stored under the skin decreases, while more is stored in the abdomen, liver, muscle, and other sites. The fat stored within organs like the liver can cause damage over time and contribute to organ failure.

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De Carvalho, F., Justice, J., Freitas, E., Kershaw, E., & Sparks, L. (2019). Adipose Tissue Quality in Aging: How Structural and Functional Aspects of Adipose Tissue Impact Skeletal Muscle Quality. Nutrients11(11), 2553. doi: 10.3390/nu11112553

As we age, changes also take place within fat tissue, contributing to increased background inflammation and impairing the response to sugar intake, both of which are strongly linked to ageing and the onset of age-related chronic diseases. While these changes still occur in lean individuals, the problem is much worse if you are obese. The effects of excessive nutrient intake appears to extend to all 9 hallmarks of ageing:

Effect of obesity or nutrient excess on the hallmarks of aging. The size of the arrows indicates the robustness of the evidence.
Salvestrini, V., Sell, C., & Lorenzini, A. (2019). Obesity May Accelerate the Aging Process. Frontiers In Endocrinology10. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2019.00266

The issue is that as we age, it becomes harder and harder to avoid becoming overweight. Older people find it harder to exercise, and experience hormonal changes leading to a decline in muscle mass.

This results in a slower metabolism that favours weight gain. Furthermore, ageing itself is a risk factor for insulin resistance, which favours fat storage, while lipid turnover within fat cells declines.

How To Avoid Obesity In Old Age

The first and most important precautions you can take to protect your ageing metabolism and avoid obesity will come as no surprise to anyone. Physical exercise is essential to reduce decline in muscle mass, protect against insulin resistance and prevent weight gain. To ensure you get enough, make exercise part of your daily routine. More is generally better, but even 30 minutes of brisk walking every day is enough to have a significant impact.

Group stretching in exercise class at gym - Police Chief Magazine

A healthy diet is also essential – specifically, avoid too much sugar and fat in favour of whole foods – vegetables, beans, nuts, and fruit. Reducing your calorie intake to compensate for your lower energy requirements may also be helpful, but is generally less important than eating the right kind of foods. This is because when we eat less, the body’s metabolic rate tends to compensate by slowing down rather than burning more fat. Fasting is an effective way of getting around this problem. This is because fasting lowers levels of the hormone insulin, which allows fat stores to be accessed.

A Plant-Based Diet and the Role of Nuts and Dried Fruits | INC -  International Nut and Dried Fruit Council

Taking dietary supplements may also help protect your metabolism from the effects of ageing. For example, many supplements appear to lower blood sugar, improve exercise performance (allowing you to exercise more), or protect against the inflammation to which fat tissue contributes.

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    Obesity and related consequences to ageing: doi: 10.1007/s11357-016-9884-3

    Obesity May Accelerate the Aging Process:

    Obesity Prevention in Older Adults:

    Weight Management in Older Adults: doi: 10.1007/s13679-015-0161-z

    Exercise and insulin sensitivity: a review: DOI: 10.1055/s-2000-8847

    The Effectiveness of Intermittent Fasting to Reduce Body Mass Index and Glucose Metabolism: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis: doi: 10.3390/jcm8101645

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