According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2010, more than 2 out of every 3 adults in the United States were considered to be overweight or obese. Approximately 1 in 20 adults surveyed were found to have a condition of extreme obesity, but the most startling statistic revealed that one third of all American children, were obese. Many people understand that obesity is unhealthy, and places individuals at greater risk of developing serious chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular problems. We also understand the factors that contribute to obesity, including sedentary lifestyle, and an increased reliance or preference for convenience and processed foods (with low nutritional value). But how does obesity impact overall health, wellness and lifestyle as we age?
Disability Rates Among Aging Adults with Obesity
Part of our goal from young adulthood through middle aged life, is to ensure that we make the right financial decisions to ensure a good retirement. The lifestyle we want to achieve after retirement is one that allows us to travel, remain socially and physically active, but most importantly, we all want to know that we can provide for, and take care of ourselves as long as possible, in our senior years. Adults who experience chronic obesity throughout life, are at a higher risk of disability, over the age of sixty-five years. The compound effects of joint and muscle strain, and other health risks predispose adults to moderate to severe disability in senior years. This impacts an adult’s ability to conduct activities of daily living (ADLs), and adults who are obese aged 51-69 years of age, are twice as likely to have trouble with ADLs, requiring caregiving assistance.
Obesity Accelerates the Clock on Biological Aging
The largest ever study of the “chromosomal clock” was conducted by Tim Spector, of the St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, England. The study measured the ends of the chromosomes (telomeres) in the white blood cells of 1122 women who were aged 18 through 76 years. At the cellular level, each time a cell divides, the telomere loses a small piece of DNA. When the telomere is expired or too short, the cell can no longer divide and it dies. This scientific discovery has allowed researchers to be able to assign a “cellular age” to individuals, based on the health and length of telomere on chromosomes. You may hear about a new test being advertised, that can tell you your ‘cellular age’ based on a telomere test. The indicators of cellular health assign a chronological age that is based on personal internal health.
While an individual may be 44, health and lifestyle impacts may increase their cellular age significantly; factors that include drug and alcohol use, prescription medications and obesity. In the Spector study, the youngest women had telomeres that were 7500 base pairs in length. The length of the telomeres was reported to decline at a rate of 27 base pairs per year. For physically fit, non-obese participants. When obese populations were evaluated in the study, they were found to have 8.8 years of addition aging noted by the length of the telomers on the white blood cells. No other determining factors or causes were concluded, other than the impact of obesity on cellular health.
Another interesting revelation from the study, was that Spector found that obese individuals were resistant to an important appetite reducing hormone, called Leptin. While higher concentrations of Leptin were found in obese individuals, their cells were unwilling to use the hormone, which suggests appetite control and overeating has a strong link to a biochemical malfunction, at the cellular level. For smokers, the damage implied 4.6 years of advanced aging for non-obese participants, and 7.4 years of extra biological aging for heavy smokers (20 cigarettes a day for 40 years) who were obese. The additional damage was speculated to be from free radicals and oxidative stress, caused by tobacco use.
Separating Social and Aesthetic Concerns from Real Health Implications
No one is naturally predisposed to obesity; it is a health condition that is entirely based on lifestyle choices. Families who have a history or pattern of obesity share common lifestyle choices, foods that are not always the healthiest, and low physical fitness and activity rates. There is little conclusive evidence that heredity plays a factor of predetermination for obesity; it is about lifestyle and choices.
On a social level, individuals who are obese can feel emotion distress and judgement by the media, the public and family and friends, however obesity is not a personal flaw, it is the sum of unhealthy habits and a health conditions that if left unchecked, can have serious negative impacts on wellness as we age. A physician supervised weight-loss program is an effective way to restore a healthy body weight, while monitoring other health, nutritional and fitness considerations. Moderating a healthy body weight now, and throughout adulthood and senior years, can help everyone maximize wellness and quality of life as we age. Start by talking to your doctor, to create a weight-loss strategy to protect your health.