Fighting Obesity in Senior Citizens

Obesity is sharply rising, despite the best efforts of public health professionals, governments and health organizations. Nonetheless, a combination of exercise, diet and counseling may still be the best ways to tackle this issue, especially among the growing population of overweight seniors. In the past five years, the number of states with an obesity rate of more than 30% for the population grew to 22 (1) in 2015, up from eight states (2) in 2010, according to reports issued by the Trust for America’s Health. Across the nation, every state has an obesity rate in excess of 20%. (3).

Seniors, in particular, have a higher obesity rate.

Roughly 35% of Americans age 65 years old and older were obese at the end of 2010, representing more than 13 million people (4), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The total population of seniors is expected to swell in the coming years to 88.5 million people by 2050 from 40.2 million in 2010, according to CDC data.

Public healthcare professionals will need to brace themselves for this increase in seniors. Healthcare costs for treating related ailments such as type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and mobility constraints will likely increase in seniors who face a higher-than-average obesity rate.

Obesity is a topic of significant importance at medical schools and other programs for healthcare professionals. For example, Creighton University’s online Master of Public Health degree addresses the obesity epidemic, its consequences and treatment. The Creighton program provides students with the techniques and tools to have an effect on public health. The program also offers service-oriented concentrations, such as Public Health Services Administration, which provides leadership and management skills to promote public health and service the public.

Benefits and drawbacks of diet and exercise

Exercise and a healthy diet are key in treating obesity. On its website, The Obesity Action Coalition writes, “modifying behaviors that contributed to developing obesity is one way to treat the disease…either alone or in conjunction with other treatments.” The educational and lobbying organization, which has more than 50,000 members, cites “increasing physical activity” and “becoming educated about the body and how to nourish it appropriately” among those actions.

Among recent studies, researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine found that a combination of diet and exercise was the most effective method for obese seniors to improve their physical performance. Dieting alone could improve a senior’s physical performance by 12%, while exercise alone could bring a 15% improvement. And according to Science Daily, a combination of dieting and exercise yielded a 21% improvement.

The physical performance test entailed such tasks as picking up a penny, walking 50 feet, standing up from a chair, lifting a book, climbing a flight of stairs and donning and removing a coat, the magazine report noted.

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “including exercise as part of a weight-loss program is particularly important in older persons to reduce bone loss.” (6)

To be sure, weight loss for seniors can present complications. Losing muscle mass can reduce strength and hurt balance. The Washington University researchers found that lean body mass and bone mass slightly declined when seniors dropped weight, according to Science Daily. The researchers found dieting seniors lost 5% of lean body mass and, at the critical hip area, 3% bone mass density, the report noted. (5)

Still, the overall benefit of a sound diet and moderate exercise are well documented.  

Counting on counseling

Outside diet and exercise, obese seniors may be eligible for free counseling to help them with their weight loss, but few take advantage of it, according to a National Public Radio (NPR) report. (7)

Under the Affordable Care Act, one of the free Medicare benefits is weight loss counseling that takes place in the office of the senior’s primary care doctor. But despite the free service, which does not require a co-pay, only 50,000 people took advantage of it in 2013, according to the NPR report.

Some weight-loss specialists say that the Medicare requirement that the counseling occur with a primary care physician makes it difficult for individuals to use the service. Appointments with physicians may take time to schedule. They believe that dietitians, weight-loss specialists or even other professionals should be able to offer such counseling.

The lack of response may also reflect a more general lack of awareness. In a 2014 letter to then newly appointed Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the Obesity Association, a leading obesity educational and research group, wrote that “many individuals are not aware of the scope of the problem. We agree that more needs to be done to address obesity at the community level by providing more guidance and resources, so people have a better understanding of where and how to lead healthier lives.”

For more information on Creighton’s online Master of Public Health program, click here.

© 2015 Wiley. All Rights Reserved.

Sources:
1. http://healthyamericans.org/reports/stateofobesity2015/

2. http://healthyamericans.org/reports/obesity2010/Obesity2010Report.pdf
3. http://healthyamericans.org/reports/stateofobesity2015/
4. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db106.htm
5. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110330192212.htm
6. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/82/5/923.full
7. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/02/23/387529382/lots-of-seniors-are-overweight-but-few-use-free-counseling