Have you ever found yourself putting on a favorite pair of pants that you’ve had for years and noticing they seem a little looser? It might not be the fabric that’s losing its shape – you might be losing weight.
Weight Changes as We Age
We spend so much of our adult lives trying to fuel our bodies and keep them in tip-top shape. We try to eat nutritious foods, engage in physical activity, and all the while work to maintain a healthy weight. But as we get older, it can actually be a bit more challenging to keep the weight on.
Body weight tends to peak around age 60. After age 70, it’s common to lose a little bit of weight. It may not be much – less than a half-pound per year on average. However, small losses over time can add up, leading to those loose pants.
Why Do We Lose Weight?
In general, our body weight is the combined total of three things: our skeleton (the bones in our bodies), how much fat we carry, and how much muscle we have. As we get older, our bones can become less dense, which may lead to osteopenia or osteoporosis. We also tend to experience muscle breakdown at a greater rate, a condition called sarcopenia. With less-dense bones and lower muscle mass, the numbers on the scale can start tipping downward.
Why is Weight Management Important?
We know how important it is not to be overweight, since excess body fat is linked to a number of health conditions like heart disease and diabetes. It’s important to avoid becoming underweight, too, because not having enough muscle to support your bones can put you at increased risk for frailty and falls. Keeping weight within a normal range and continuing to eat well and exercise are good strategies for healthy aging.
Five Tips to Avoid Age-Related Weight Loss
To keep a healthy weight, try these simple tips:
- Emphasize Protein. Protein is a key nutrient involved in muscle health, bone health, immune system support and recovery after illness or injury. As we get older, our need for protein increases. Healthy people 65 and older need 1 gram of protein for every 2 pounds of body weight (e.g. 75 g protein for 150 lbs.) per day. Aim for 20-35 grams of protein at each meal or snack.
- Make Meals a Priority. When we have a daily routine that includes eating breakfast before dashing off to work, taking a lunch break and coming home for dinner, mealtimes tend to fall into place at natural intervals. If you’re retired or don’t have a set schedule, however, it’s easier to forget to eat a meal, or lose track of when your last snack was. Undereating often leads to weight loss, so set aside times for meals and make them a priority.
- Have Fun with Food. Sometimes we fall into an eating rut and mealtimes can become a little boring. Make eating a fun event by enjoying them together with friends or family. Add some spice to your life by signing up for a cooking class or simply trying new recipes you find online or in a cookbook.
- Get Quality Calories. Combating weight loss means taking in more calories. This can be hard to do if you aren’t particularly hungry. Instead, make your meals work harder for you by choosing calorie-dense foods that also supply necessary nutrients to support overall health. For example, salmon, nuts, and dairy each provide protein, fats and nutrients in one quality-calorie package. You might also want to try supplemental nutrition drinks, which are designed to provide essential nutrients in a convenient way.
- Lift Weights. Combat muscle loss by working on building muscle. Weight training helps older adults maintain and build muscle and can also help with stability and balance. Find a program online or work with a trainer to establish a program based on your ability levels.
When Weight Loss is Drastic
Shedding a pound or two over a long period isn’t a huge cause for concern, but if you’ve experienced a drastic weight loss, you will want to talk with a doctor.
Unintended weight loss, or losing 5% or more of your body weight in a 6-12 month period, is associated with an increased risk for morbidity and mortality. Unintended weight loss can also be a signal of an underlying condition which, if left untreated, can become worse.
Weight loss may be tied to medical issues, such as a problem with the thyroid or adrenal glands, or the gastrointestinal tract. It can also be psychological and linked to depression which can lead to ambivalence about eating. If you’ve experience unintended or drastic weight loss, it’s important to seek medical attention.