Seniors Aren't Spared by Today's Obesity Epidemic
‘Tis the season…that we eat too much. As the holidays approach, this is a good time to think about maintaining a healthy weight. For older adults, healthy eating is especially important.
Being underweight has long been known as a red flag for possible health problems in the elderly. But geriatrics specialists today focus equally on the dangers of being overweight. According to Dain LaRoche, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire, the common image of a "bird-thin" elder being at the highest risk of disability might not be accurate. LaRoche says, "That’s the chorus that’s been sung for the last 20 years. But with two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese and the elderly population expected to double by the year 2030, we are going to see a large portion of people who are disabled due to the concurrent gaining of weight and loss of strength.”
Most of us are aware of our nation’s obesity epidemic, and we are familiar with the connection between obesity and heart disease, diabetes and stroke. During the past year, researchers have also confirmed the connection between excess body fat and several other major health conditions:
Osteoporosis. Geriatricians have long cautioned that being underweight leaves seniors vulnerable to bone loss. A recent study shows that excess body fat may also cause thinning bones. Miriam A. Bredella, a radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, reported that excess belly fat in particular puts seniors at higher risk of osteoporosis.
Memory problems. Researchers from Chicago's Northwestern Medicine linked obesity to decreased memory quality in senior women. Their study showed that for every one-point increase in a woman’s body mass index (BMI), her score on a standard memory test dropped by one point. Belly fat was also the main culprit in this study.
Dementia. The American Academy of Neurology reported that people who are overweight in midlife have an 80 percent higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia in later life. Study author Weili Xu of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute reported, "Our results contribute to the growing evidence that controlling body weight or losing weight in middle age could reduce your risk of dementia."
Arthritis. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston discovered that obesity increases the risk for osteoarthritis of the knee, a painful and debilitating condition that can reduce the length and quality of life. Arthritis, in turn, makes it harder to manage many health conditions. Noting the alarming rise in obesity during the last decade, study author Elena Losina, Ph.D., said, "Reducing obesity to levels observed in 2000 would prevent 172,792 cases of coronary heart disease, 710,942 cases of diabetes and 269,934 total knee replacements. All told, it would save roughly 19.5 million years of life among U.S. adults aged 50-84."
How Can Home Care Help?
For many seniors, maintaining a healthy weight is a challenge. Professional in-home caregivers realize the importance of weight control through lifestyle and diet. They support clients in several ways:
Meal planning. As we grow older, our metabolism slows down and we need less fuel for our bodies. But our need for nutrients does not decline. This means that every calorie must count! According to the USDA, "Most older Americans are having trouble fitting the recommended number of daily food group servings into their decreased calorie budgets." In-home caregivers help develop healthy, appetizing menus that meet seniors’ nutritional requirements, including specially prescribed diets such as low salt, low fat or high fiber.
Meal preparation. Grocery shopping and cooking can seem like "just too much trouble" for seniors who are living with mobility, sensory or cognitive impairment. As time goes by, they may find themselves subsisting on frozen meals and packaged snacks. But prepackaged foods are often higher in fat and sodium and lower in nutrients than freshly prepared meals. In-home caregivers create tempting meals and snacks with nutrient-rich fresh ingredients, and can also prepare meals to be eaten later.
Encouraging physical activity. A healthy diet is half of the strategy for maintaining a healthy weight. Exercise is the other half. Physical activity burns calories, builds muscle mass and helps control appetite. In-home caregivers provide an extra measure of confidence for seniors as they go for a walk, attend an exercise class or even play active video games.
Support for managing health conditions. Arthritis, osteoporosis, strokes and fractures make it harder to be active. In-home caregivers transport senior clients to healthcare appointments, weight-loss classes and exercise programs. They support compliance with the physician’s lifestyle recommendations and help with management of prescription medications and recommended nutritional, vitamin and mineral supplements.
Companionship. Many seniors report that they do not eat healthy meals because it's just too much trouble to cook for one. Geriatricians have long understood that loneliness and isolation can result in an unhealthy weight loss for seniors who live alone. They are now expressing a similar concern about obesity. Seniors may overeat out of boredom, skip meals, and then fill up on junk food. In-home care encourages social engagement and human connection—which might well be what a lonely senior truly craves instead of that package of chocolate doughnuts.
The National Institutes of Health warns that as our population ages, healthcare costs in the U.S. will skyrocket—and obesity-related illness will account for $66 billion in additional costs by the year 2030. Helping seniors maintain a healthy weight is vital for older adults themselves and for our national healthcare budget. With home care playing an ever-larger role in our long-term care system, it is also likely to be key in the fight against obesity.
Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned, franchised providers of in-home care services.