A healthy weight when you are older – from your late 60s on – doesn’t mean the same thing as it does for younger adults. Good health at later age continues to be founded on the pursuit of an active lifestyle and avoiding being sedentary, but if you have now reached later age some things set you apart from those who are younger.
Firstly, for reasons medicine doesn’t yet fully understand, a healthy weight in your later years is higher than what might have been considered ideal when you were younger. Research shows that a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 23 and 28 are probably ideal – that would put many younger people in the ‘overweight’ range.
Why? Maybe slightly higher BMIs provide an advantage because the additional muscle work needed to carry a heavier body results in extra muscle – a decided health advantage. Or it may be that older people with higher BMIs are eating better. Whatever the reason, researchers in the health of the aged are suggesting that an appropriate ‘healthy weight range’ for those in their later years should be a bit higher, with a BMI below 22 generally being considered to be too low. It’s not clear yet how other healthy weight measures such as waist circumference stack up so it is better that older people avoid comparing themselves to those measures.
Research is clear on one thing however: weight loss is more likely to be harmful than helpful in these years unless it combines a very good exercise program with a high protein diet – ideally planned and monitored by an exercise physiologist and an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD). No matter what your weight, strategies to lose any that involve diet alone, or any unplanned weight loss, will result in loss of body muscle that doesn’t get replaced as it would have when you were younger. And with muscle providing essential support to your immune system, your body organs and your brain, any loss can quickly impact your health in these years.
Certainly, obesity in earlier years puts you at higher risk of both physical and mental decline in later age, especially if you gain a lot from middle to late adulthood. But if you have already reached older age then remaining active and eating adequately to support your body is ideal. Aiming to lose weight to adhere to guidelines appropriate only for younger adults is more likely to hinder, than help, your health.
Older people often have smaller appetites than younger, but they actually need more of some nutrients, including protein and some vitamins and minerals. Smaller meals must continue to supply these needs. That means a focus on a protein food at the centre of most meals and plenty of variety of vegetables, fruits and grains to accompany that.
If you need help managing your weight or advice on your nutrition requirements, an APD can help. See Find an APD for more information.
This article was written by Ngaire Hobbins, Accredited Practising Dietitian and member DAA’s Rehabilitation and Aged Care Interest Group. Ngaire specialises in geriatrics and aged care and is a researcher and lecturer in dementia studies at the University of Tasmania.