Taft, who weighed more than 300 pounds, was America’s twenty-seventh and, let’s just say, most well-rounded president. By the last year of his life, the former president frequently experienced dizziness, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations caused by severe hardening of the arteries. He died in his sleep at age 72 after suffering a massive heart attack.
The moral of this story is probably one that you have already heard. Namely, aging and serious weight problems are a nasty, and often fatal, duo.
“There is clearly a relationship between aging and weight problems. You can almost think of one helping the other to hurt you,” says Robert Di Bianco, M.D., director of cardiology research at the Washington Adventist Hospital and associate clinical professor of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.
About 20 percent of all Americans over age 65 are overweight, according to David A. Lipschitz, M.D., Ph.D., chairman and professor of geriatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. If you’re one of them, here’s a glimpse at just some of the havoc those excess pounds may be causing in your body.
Blood. People who are overweight are more prone to high blood pressure, a risk factor for stroke and heart attack, says Jan I. Maby, D.O., director of the Geriatric Medical Home Care program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. Every pound of excess weight drives your systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) up 4.5 millimeters.
Heart. The more overweight you are, the harder your heart has to work to pump blood and supply nutrients to all of the cells in your body. Excessive body weight also contributes to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Being overweight may quadruple your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.
Lungs. Although your body can keep getting bigger, your lungs can’t. The same two lungs that did so well when you were thinner now have to supply oxygen to a much larger body. That puts a lot of strain on your respiratory system, Dr. Maby says. In addition, thick pads of fat in the abdomen can interfere with your ability to breathe well.
Abdomen. Your stomach isn’t causing that potbelly. It’s fat that has accumulated under the skin and within your abdominal cavity. Harvard researchers found that men with waist circumferences of 43 inches or more are 2½ times more likely to develop colon cancer than those whose waists are less than 35 inches.
Pancreas. Diabetes is three times more common among people who are overweight.
Reproductive system. Endometrial cancer is two to three times more common in overweight women than in those who are lean.
Joints. Excess weight causes greater wear and tear in joints and can aggravate symptoms of arthritis. The strain is particularly hard on the knees and lower back.
Although you may have tried losing weight several times in the past, here are a few reminders and several fresh ideas that can help you shed the pounds and keep them off this time.
Try This First
Your best bet is to fine-tune your eating habits as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes getting regular exercise and developing a positive attitude, Dr. Simonson says. Remember, this is a lifestyle makeover that will help you add life to your years. Start by making small changes. For breakfast, have a one-ounce slice of Canadian bacon instead of four slices of regular bacon. You’ll save more than 100 calories if you do. Park a few extra spaces away from the supermarket so you’ll walk a bit more. Take a moment each day to concentrate on an aspect of your body that you like, such as your smile, and take pride in the features that are improving.
These small but important lifestyle changes can make big differences in your weight, Dr. Simonson says.
Other Wise Ways
“If I’m trying to help an overweight senior, the first thing I’m going to do is get him moving,” says Cerino. “Maybe he can only walk a block; fine. We can build from there. But you’re simply not going to get your weight under control without some form of exercise.”
A person over 60 can easily cover a mile a day by doing errands on foot or walking from room to room cleaning house, Dr. Simonson says. If you do it every day and combine your exercise program with a healthy high-fiber, low-fat diet, you can lose up to 11 pounds a year. You should aim for walking a minimum of three miles a week or doing some other exercise for 30 minutes three times a week, she suggests.
Pass the convenience store. Many seniors like shopping at mini-markets because they’re conveniently close to home. But they offer little to help you lose weight, Cerino says. “Many of the foods at these stores are premade. Unfortunately, a lot of them are snack-type things that are high in fat, sodium, and sugar. You might find some healthy sandwiches there, and you can certainly find fat-free milk, margarine, and some low-fat snacks. But your choices are very limited if you’re looking for a good selection of foods that are low in fat or calories.”
Try to shop at larger grocery stores where there is greater variety so you can make healthier food choices. If you have difficulty shopping or are intimidated by traffic, you may want to hire a neighbor’s teenager to shop for you, Cerino suggests.
Make your kitchen less cozy. If your kitchen is your living room—the place where you watch television, chat with friends, and spend most of your time—make some changes. A kitchen that is too comfy is dangerous if you’re overweight, because you’ll be tempted to spend more time there nibbling on snacks and other foods. So move the rocking chair and television back into the living room, where they belong, Cerino says.
Then rearrange your kitchen so snacks, cookies, and other high-calorie temptations take more effort to get to than healthy and tasty foods like grapes, carrots, rice cakes, and whole-grain crackers.
Cook it, serve it, store it, eat it. If you put foods into serving bowls and place them on the table, you’ll be tempted to take seconds, Cerino says. Instead, take modest portions—so they don’t overlap on your plate—right from pots and pans in the oven or on the stove. Then quickly wrap up any leftovers and put them away before you eat. That way you’ll end up with a spare meal in the freezer instead of a spare tire around your belly.
Savor the experience. Take your time and enjoy eating, Cerino suggests. A meal should last at least 20 to 30 minutes because there is a lag time between when you take your last bite and when your stomach lets your brain know that it is full. If you eat too fast, you may be going beyond that point without even knowing it, particularly after age 60, when it begins to take more time for your digestive system to react.
Put your fork down between bites and chew carefully. Note the time before you begin eating. If you’re finished within 5 minutes, try to stretch that out to 8 minutes during the next meal. Gradually increase the time it takes you to eat, until you reach 20 minutes, Cerino says.
Throw your stomach a bone. If you have trouble controlling your appetite, have a 100-calorie snack, like one ounce of low-fat cheese and a few crackers, or two cups of warm air-popped popcorn, 30 minutes before eating. That way your stomach will already have something in it, and you won’t need to eat as much to feel full, Cerino says.
Drinking an eight-ounce glass of water about 10 minutes before you eat can also have the same effect, Dr. Simonson says.
Take in fuel at a steady pace. If you eat smaller meals more frequently, you’ll gain better control of your appetite, Cerino says. After breakfast, have a midmorning snack like yogurt or an apple. Have a hearty lunch entrée such as low-fat stew, baked chicken breast, or spaghetti. Then have a late-afternoon snack like low-fat cheese and crackers, and a small dinner like three ounces of skinless chicken or lean beef with rice, two vegetables, and a little bit of margarine or olive oil. And you can finish off the day with a light evening snack such as a scoop of fat-free frozen yogurt.
“A person who only eats one or two times a day is probably going to weigh more than someone who has five or six smaller, calorie-controlled meals a day,” Cerino says. “When you eat fewer meals, you end up starving by the time you do eat, and you tend to eat a greater number of calories than if you kept the hunger to a minimum by eating frequent meals.”
Ultimately, whether you gain or lose weight depends on the kinds of foods you eat, Dr. Simonson says. Cutting down on fat and sugar will go a long way to helping you reach your goal.
Managing Your Meds
Relying on appetite suppressants and quick-fix over-the-counter weight-loss products will lighten your pocketbook but do little else, says Jan I. Maby, D.O., director of the Geriatric Medical Home Care program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
Many prescription medications such as dexfenfluramine (Redux) and phentermine (Adipex-P), which you may know as Fen-Phen, did help some people lose weight. But these products caused severe side effects, including serious heart problems, and some, such as Redux, were quickly withdrawn from the market, notes W. Steven Pray, Ph.D., R.Ph., professor of nonprescription drug products at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford.
As for over-the-counter medications, forget about it, Dr. Pray says. Many nonprescription weight-control products such as Dexatrim and Acutrim contain phenylpropanolamine, a substance that can dangerously elevate an older person’s blood pressure and cause heart problems or even stroke, Dr. Pray says.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Some older people ultimately sabotage their efforts by dwelling on the little defeats in their struggles with weight control rather than focusing on their many achievements, Dr. Simonson says. Don’t be one of them.
Instead of focusing on your overall goal, set your sights on a modest weight target that you can easily achieve, like losing half a pound a week, Dr. Simonson says. If you don’t reach your goal in one week, try to think of it not as a failure but as a learning experience. Jot down the things you did and didn’t do that will help you make a better effort in the next seven days.
Don’t get discouraged, she says. It may take longer to lose pounds than it did in the past. As you age, your metabolism slows down, which simply means it takes your body longer to burn up food calories or turn them into energy. If you’re someone over 60 and you can lose a half-pound to a pound a week, you’re doing great, Dr. Simonson says.