Weight Maintenance For Women Is Linked to Exceptional Longevity, New Research Shows
Weight loss is, quite plainly, a neutral term that has been morphed into something that conveys a good—or desirable—outcome. But that's not always the case.
A new study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences actually found that women who maintained their weight as they age had a greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity1 (aka living past 90). Whereas women who lost weight—intentionally or not—after 60 years had a smaller chance of reaching that threshold.
Let's dive into this study and dissect how your weight (and metabolic goals) might shift as you age.
What the study measured
Researchers followed a total of 54,437 women (who are part of the Women's Health Initiative) between the ages of 61 and 71 for a total of 10 years. They examine the relationship between weight loss and the likelihood of reaching the ages of 90, 95, and 100.
Weight loss was defined as losing 5% or more of a person's weight at the beginning of the study.
They also wanted to see if there was a difference between those who said they were intentionally trying to lose weight and those who said any weight loss was unintentional. Weights were measured at the beginning of the study and then three and 10 years later.
Here's what the results showed
In total, 56% of the women reached at least 90 years of age at the end of the study.
Those who maintained a stable weight were 1.2 to two times more likely to live to the late ages of 90 to 100.
At the three-year check-in, the women who lost weight, for any reason, were 33% less likely to reach the age of 90 (those odds shifted slightly to 35% and 38% for reaching 95 and 100).
Women who experienced unintentional weight loss during these three years fared worse. They had a 51% lower chance of reaching age 90.
Weight gain was not significantly associated with differences in longevity.
The overall conclusion of this study is that maintaining a steady, stable weight helps to win the longevity game.
But it's important to note that this study was not racially diverse (almost 90% of the women were white), and the majority of participants had a body mass index (BMI) in the healthy or overweight category to start.
This study sheds more light on weight and aging
Figuring out what's the ideal weight (or weight trend to follow) to live the longest and healthiest life possible is complex.
So losing weight, even later in life, may be beneficial when pursued with a health care practitioner for people with a BMI over 30 (classified as obesity).
Results showed that weight loss interventions decreased the risk of all-cause mortality by as much as 18%.
Depending on a person's weight and the measures they take to lower it, healthy sustainable weight loss may still be appropriate for some people over 60. But talk with a health care provider for personalized guidance.
What's well established, though, is that unintentional weight loss is an important risk factor 4for mortality in elderly folks.
Why is unintentional weight loss dangerous with age?
Medications and changes in taste buds can decrease appetite and food intake. And psychological changes such as depression, anxiety, and dementia may also impact how much you eat.
While it can be mitigated, loss of muscle mass often accompanies aging—bringing your good, lean body weight with it. Not having enough muscle mass can increase the risk of frailty and falls and lead to subsequent fractures.
Maintaining healthy levels of muscle mass is an essential component of longevity, quality of life, and independence.
Optimize your weight and metabolic health by your 40s and 50s
If you're striving for longevity, your best bet is to take steps to optimize your weight and metabolic health (including your body composition, blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, and so on) as early as possible.
Menopause is a great time to reevaluate and implement lifestyle changes that will carry you through the decades that follow. Because it often shifts where you stand metabolically—as hormonal changes (especially the dramatic drop in estrogen levels) tend to lead to both weight (and fat) accumulation.
If you can effectively navigate this transition through food, exercise, sleep, metabolism-supporting supplements, and stress management, those habits will likely still benefit you later during your later postmenopause years as well.
Despite what our culture will tell you, weight loss is not a universally positive thing. For older adults, it can, quite frankly, be detrimental. When you get to a certain age (possibly starting around 60 but definitely in your 80s and 90s), maintaining the weight you do have is an important contributor to your longevity.
Molly Knudsen, M.S., RDN is a Registered Dietician Nutritionist and mindbodygreen's supplements editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Texas Christian University and a master’s in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from Tufts University. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts and enjoys connecting people to the food they eat and how it influences health and wellbeing.