Living Large Slows People Down in Later Years

Here’s some motivation to stay slim and trim in midlife:  Investigators report that people who are overweight at younger ages have a harder time getting around when they are older, even if they lose weight in their later years.

At Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, a team led by Denise Houston, PhD, RD, an assistant professor in internal medicine, studied weight and mobility data on 2,845 men and women (average age 73.6) collected in the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study. The participants, Medicare recipients in Pittsburgh and Memphis, were healthy and well-functioning at the outset. Over a seven-year period, Dr. Houston and her colleagues found that…

  • Women who were overweight or obese (with a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 or higher) from their 20s to their 70s were almost three times more likely to have mobility limitations than women who had consistently maintained a normal weight.
  • Overweight or obese men over this same time span were 1.6 times more likely to experience difficulty with mobility than normal-weight men.
  • Women who were obese (with a BMI of 30 or higher) at age 50 but not in their 70s were 2.7 times more likely to have mobility limitations than women who were consistently trim.
  • Similarly, men who were obese at age 50 were 1.8 times more likely to develop mobility problems later in life.

A person was considered to have mobility limitations if he/she had trouble walking a quarter mile or climbing 10 steps. These results were published in the April 15, 2009, issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Watch Scale Numbers Throughout Life

I asked Dr. Houston to explain why carrying excess weight earlier in life leads to such significant consequences in old age. She explained that, structurally speaking, extra pounds put strain on joints, which can eventually cause arthritis. Being overweight also raises the risk for chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, which can hamper mobility as you grow older.

Dr. Houston’s advice is simple and straightforward: Watch what you eat, get regular exercise, and do your best to maintain a normal weight throughout life. Among those who are overweight or obese, reducing weight at any age may improve mobility — but for older adults especially, significant weight loss should be supervised by a health professional (physician or registered dietitian) to ensure that you’re doing it safely.