that intentional weight loss is harmful to
seniors is unfounded
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A new study by
researchers at Wake Forest University
Baptist Medical Center is the first to
refute the widely held belief that
intentional weight loss in older adults
leads to increased risk of death.
In fact, the research shows that seniors who
intentionally exercised and/or modified
their diets to lose weight were half as
likely to die within eight years of
follow-up as their peers who did not work
toward weight loss, said M. Kyla Shea,
Ph.D., first author on the study and a
research associate in the Department of
Internal Medicine, Section on Gerontology
and Geriatric Medicine.
"It was an unusually strong and surprising
finding," Shea said. "Our data suggest that
people should not be concerned about trying
or recommending weight loss to address
obesity-related health problems in older
The study, funded by the National Institute
on Aging, is currently available online and
is schedule to appear in a future print
issue of the Journal
of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.
Prior to this study, research that has
looked at the association between mortality
and weight loss has not factored in the many
different potential causes of the weight
So, using a more rigorous randomized trial
approach, Shea and colleagues sought to
prove or disprove the idea that older
individuals who actively tried to lose
weight increased their risk of death.
The research team re-analyzed data from a
study of 318 community-dwelling, older
adults over age 60, all with knee arthritis,
who were enrolled in a trial assessing the
effects of weight loss and/or exercise on
physical function in the late 1990s.
initial weight-loss intervention took place
over a period of 18 months from 1996 through
1998, during which time the 159 individuals
in the intervention groups actively lost an
average of 10.5 pounds. The non-intervention
group lost an average of 3.1 pounds
The researchers then checked to see if the
study participants were still living eight
"Overall, we found that there were far fewer
deaths – half the number – in the group of
participants that lost weight compared to
the group that did not," Shea said.
The finding was unexpected to seasoned
"For years, the medical community has relied
on multiple epidemiological studies that
suggested that older people who lost weight
were more likely to die," said Stephen B.
Kritchevsky, Ph.D., director of the J. Paul
Sticht Center on Aging at the Medical
"Weight loss in old folks is just understood
to be a bad prognostic sign. The data that
people have been using has been unable to
separate the cause and effect of the weight
loss, however, and our study suggests that
the weight loss they've been studying may be
the result of other health problems and not
of intentional weight loss."
The participants in this study had a
constellation of common health problems
occurring in aging adults, Kritchevsky
"These were the seniors living out in the
community, getting around and doing their
daily tasks just like your neighbor," he
said. "All were overweight and dealing with
the signs of aging when the study started."
When the researchers evaluated the effect of
weight loss in the oldest of the
participants – 75 and older – they found the
same reduction in mortality as they saw in
the younger group – those 60 and older – who
Weight loss in older adults has been shown
to help several medical problems,
Kritchevsky said, such as high blood
pressure, high cholesterol and high fasting
glucose levels. However, physicians have
been hesitant to recommend weight loss in
older adults because of a concern for
mortality based on previous research.
"This study puts to rest a lot of unfounded
concerns about how to address the epidemic
of obesity among our older adults,"
He cautioned that the study was relatively
small and the results should be confirmed in
other trials, but that the data gathered
from this analysis are sufficient enough to
rule out any significant excess risk due to
intentional weight loss and to suggest that
there may be a mortality benefit to losing
the weight, as well.
In addition to Shea and Kritchevsky, Wake
Forest Baptist co-authors included Denise K.
Houston, Ph.D., Barbara J. Nicklas, Ph.D.,
Dalane W. Kitzman, M.D., and Kimberly
Kennedy, B.A., all of the J. Paul Sticht
Center on Aging; Cralen C. Davis, M.S. and
Michael E. Miller, Ph.D., both of the
Department of Public Health Sciences;
Stephen P. Messier, Ph.D., of Wake Forest
University; and Tamara B. Harris, M.D., of
the National Institute on Aging.
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center (www.wfubmc.edu)
is an academic health system comprised of
North Carolina Baptist Hospital, Brenner
Children's Hospital, Wake Forest University
Physicians, and Wake Forest University
Health Sciences, which operates the
university's School of Medicine and Piedmont
Triad Research Park. The system comprises
1,056 acute care, rehabilitation and
long-term care beds and has been ranked as
one of "America's Best Hospitals" by U.S.
News & World Report since 1993. Wake Forest
Baptist is ranked 32nd in the nation by
America's Top Doctors for the number of its
doctors considered best by their peers. The
institution ranks in the top third in
funding by the National Institutes of Health
and fourth in the Southeast in revenues from
its licensed intellectual property.