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Video: Does weight come with age?

By Dr. Laura Berman
TODAY contributor
updated 7/16/2008 10:42:44 AM ET 2008-07-16T14:42:44

Is it true that aging and weight gain go hand in hand?

Ask most women over the age of 40 and they will respond with a resounding “Yes!” From behavioral to biological factors, weight gain and aging go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Why does this weight gain occur — and is there any way to stop the extra pounds in their tracks?

Physical factors
Bye-bye, estrogen: Starting as early as our late 30s and into our 40s, women go into perimenopause, in which estrogen levels begin to decline. Once in menopause, our estrogen levels drop sharply and even greater changes in our bodies begin to occur — including weight gain. Here’s why:

Our appetites change:When we eat, our stomachs sort the contents into proteins, carbohydrates and fat, which the body uses for different purposes. Both enzymes and hormones help the food break down. If the body is off-balance hormonally (such as during menopause), its ability to proceed with digestion is interrupted. If digestion is not taking place as it should, feelings of fullness do not register in the brain. This is because when estradiol levels drop, so does a hormone called cholecystokinin, which is produced during digestion. This hormone signals the gallbladder that it’s time to empty. In our body’s language, this tells our mind we are full and to stop eating. Instead, during menopause, the body begins tricking the mind into thinking it needs to eat more.

Our metabolism changes: Out-of-balance estrogen also causes insulin levels to go up and thyroid levels to go down. Diminished thyroid levels slow down the body’s metabolism. Thus, you are eating more and burning less as effective fuel for your body.

Our stress hormone increases … and so does our “pooch.” Belly fat is one of the symptoms of lower estrogen levels, along with a change in the overall shape of a woman's body. This can be due to cortisol, the stress hormone. This increase in cortisol creates the stubborn belly fat that women often gain as they age, and which is so hard to lose.

Our sleep patterns change: Many women start experiencing insomnia or other sleep disturbances as they age as a result of lowered levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted according to a person's biorhythms. Increased levels of cortisol during menopause can interfere with this sleep hormone. The loss of sleep leads to crankiness and lower levels of energy, making it all the harder to stay active (much less have the energy to do so!). Furthermore, research has shown that people who get five hours of sleep a night have 15 percent lower levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin and 15 percent higher levels of hunger-increasing ghrelin.

Emotional factors
As if our bodies weren’t doing enough to increase weight as we age, our emotions play a part as well!

The “What’s the point?” mentality: Body image is particularly delicate for women as we start to show the signs of aging and our bodies start to sag in places we didn't expect them to. In a society that values youth and beauty, it’s all too common to feel unattractive, old and undesirable. This depletes our motivation to exercise and improve our appearance.

Despite this negative mentality, research has found that after just one workout, a woman’s body image can improve. Getting active even for a short amount of time can boost feelings of confidence and happiness. Women should try to get active at least 20 minutes every day, even if it is just a short walk around the block. Another bonus is that increased levels of activity may also help you to sleep better at night.

The empty-nest syndrome: Typically, as we reach our late 40s to mid 50s, we begin to experience numerous life changes. The kids may be going off to college, or even getting married and having kids of their own. Mothers may feel like they are useless or obsolete due to these life-changes. In addition, their partners may not be very supportive or understanding during this difficult physical and emotional time. Women may turn to food as a form of comfort and as a replacement for intimacy.

However, the empty-nest syndrome doesn’t have to get out of hand. Women in their 40s, 50s and beyond are more active and vibrant than ever before. Many of us grew up with moms who thought they were done once they hit midlife, but now that's changing rapidly. The more we continue to grow and challenge ourselves, the more active, healthier and happier we will be — and the better we look on the inside and out!

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