IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'It is never too late': Successful weight loss not affected by age, study finds

Obesity can have a particularly devastating effect on older people, but 43% of Americans over 60 are obese.
Wild Swimming Women's Group Autumnal Swim
A "Wild Swimming Women's Group" takes an autumnal swim at Hampstead Heath ponds in the UK. Staying active and other lifestyle changes can help people over 60 lose weight just as successfully as their younger peers.Hollie Fernando / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

The time for New Year’s weight-loss resolutions is nearing, and with it, lots of focus on people in their 20s, 30s and 40s shedding pounds and showing off before-and-after photos.

Doctors want older Americans to know they can have just as much success slimming down.

Obese people over 60 can lose an equivalent amount of weight as younger patients using only lifestyle changes, researchers reported recently in the journal Clinical Endocrinology.

“It is never too late,” Dr. Thomas Barber, lead author and associate professor at the Warwick Medical School in Coventry, England, told TODAY.

“We are all living longer in the context of an obesity epidemic that has ensued over the last half century. No one is immune from weight gain and obesity. It is never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle, to facilitate healthy aging and promote wellness and well-being.”

Almost 43% of people over 60 are obese in the U.S., a rate similar to that in younger age groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obesity comes with more than 50 related health problems, including type 2 diabetes, joint pain, higher cancer risk, difficulty breathing and moving, and depression and anxiety, the study noted.

It may have a particularly devastating effect on older people since the problems develop over time and accumulate in older age, the authors cautioned. Obesity can also accelerate processes that happen with age, such as atherosclerosis — the buildup of plaque inside arteries — which can lead to heart attacks and stroke.

“Older people who are also obese often suffer from a metabolic ‘double-whammy,’ with effects from both the normal aging process and obesity. For this reason, effective weight loss in older people with obesity should be prioritized rather than ignored,” Barber said.

But there are incorrect “ageist beliefs” about their ability to lose weight, including a perceived lack of motivation or being too frail to exercise, he noted. Doctors may also be reluctant to refer older patients for weight-loss programs, and those patients may not feel that such programs are for them.

But that’s not the case, the study showed.

Researchers randomly selected 242 patients who attended a hospital-based obesity treatment program at the Warwickshire Institute for the Study of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism between 2005 and 2016.

All of them had “conservative management” that focused on dietary changes and psychological support. They were also encouraged to be physically active.

The patients were divided into two groups — those 18-60 years old, and those over 60. They spent about the same amount of time in the obesity program: 41 months and 33 months, respectively.

When weight loss was compared between the two groups, the researchers found the results were essentially the same. The younger people lost 6.9% of their body weight on average, compared to 7.3% for the older group.

Older age does not influence the success of weight loss through lifestyle changes, the authors wrote. Though the study was done in the context of a hospital program, anyone can adopt a healthy lifestyle — it doesn’t require a doctor or a hospital team, Barber said.

“Hopefully our study will help to address any pre-conceived prejudices or ageist beliefs regarding weight loss in older people,” he added.

The prescription for weight-loss is consistent, regardless of age:

Eat a whole-food, plant-based diet that’s naturally high in fiber: An eating plan that fits the bill and comes up over and over again when it comes to health benefits is the Mediterranean diet.

Sit less and move more: It doesn’t even require scheduling exercise sessions or walking 10,000 steps every day — a number that may not mean much, experts say. Do more house work or play with your pets — the goal is to move around more.

Get enough sleep: It’s a lifestyle factor that doesn’t get talked about enough, but most people are sleep deprived and sleep affects every aspect of physiology, including appetite and metabolism, Barber said.

“If we don’t get enough sleep, then it is very difficult for us to adopt any other facet of a healthy lifestyle,” he noted. “Getting sufficient sleep every night is paramount. Once this is sorted, the other main elements of diet and physical activity become much easier.”

Even if people don’t lose weight, they can still transform their overall health and future outlook simply by adopting a healthy lifestyle, Barber noted.