As much as people celebrate their own weight loss, it’s not always healthy.
A new study shows that weight loss in older adults is associated with early death and life-limiting conditions.
Weight gain, on the other hand, was not associated with mortality The study was published Monday in JAMA Network Open.
Dr. Monira Hussain, lead study author, says medical professionals are aware that older adults with health conditions are concerned when they lose weight, but researchers don’t fully understand the impact of weight change on healthy older adults. Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.
The study involved 17,000 adults aged at least 70 in Australia and more than 2,000 adults aged at least 65 in the US. Each study participant was weighed at their annual check-up between 2010 and 2014, according to the study.
“Our study found that even a 5% weight loss increased the risk of death, especially in older men,” Hussain said.
Weight gain in healthy older adults, on the other hand, showed no association, he added.
The association was found across starting weights, meaning that those clinically classified as obese were also at greater risk when losing weight, said Perry Halperin, director of clinical nutrition at Mount Sinai Health System. Halperin was not involved in the study.
Health problems were quantified at the start of the study. This excluded people with conditions such as cardiovascular disease, dementia, physical disabilities or chronic illness, Hussain said.
“It also excluded those with recent hospitalizations, which is important because weight loss due to acute conditions often leads to hospitalizations,” Halperin said in an email.
But the study couldn’t distinguish whether the subjects lost weight intentionally or accidentally, Hussain added.
“No questions were asked about changes in activity level and diet quality between the baseline study visit and subsequent study visits, so we have no information about how those factors may have affected the results,” Haberin said.
Weight loss can be a risk factor for death because it can indicate underlying problems.
Weight loss can be a warning sign for conditions such as cancer and dementia, and is “often linked to inflammation and reduced appetite from the influence of hormones,” Hussain said.
Underlying chronic health conditions can trigger weight loss in older adults by affecting appetite, metabolism and eating habits, Halperin said. Movement problems and medication side effects can also affect weight.
Changes in weight can also indicate lifestyle concerns, Halperin said.
“A major contributing factor to weight loss in the elderly is social isolation. Other concerns include financial constraints and pain and discomfort,” he added.
In studies like this, it’s important to remember that correlation is not causation, Halperin said. Weight loss is associated with death, which means it is correlated—but that does not mean that weight loss caused a person’s death.
“It’s also important to say that it can’t be negative or suggestive — meaning that weight gain doesn’t reduce your risk of death,” he said in an email. “As always, discuss your weight changes with your doctor or other medical professional.”
Older people should carry it to track their weight changes, Halperin said.
“If they notice a decrease in size (weight loss) or once-tight-fitting pants (decreased waist circumference), “bring it to their doctor for additional screening or testing.”
But the advice also goes to the medical community, he said. Physicians and health care providers should be aware that changes in weight require further investigation.