WEIGHT GAIN

Once we reach adulthood, we usually maintain a fairly steady weight. Weight can go up during the middle years, especially if your exercise and physical activity are minimal. Beyond middle age your weight may drop slightly because your skeleton mass and the bulk of your muscles gradually decrease. In Western countries excess weight is a common problem, and it may become exaggerated with age. But obesity is not normal or healthy.

The most common cause of weight gain is a decrease in activity compared to the number of calories eaten. Since eating habits rarely change, and as the inclination to exercise often lessens with age, many older people tend to gain weight. This may be exaggerated by economic factors, which force people to rely on cheaper foods such as sugars, starches (carbohydrates), and fats when good sources of protein become prohibitively expensive. Besides decreasing your energy level, excess weight has serious consequences on your ability to function well: it steps up the work of the heart, exaggerates the symptoms of arthritic conditions and back pain, increases the risks in surgery, and makes diabetes mellitus more difficult to control.

The most effective way to deal with weight gain is to maintain a reasonable degree of activity and carefully limit your food intake. The best way to assure adequate physical activity is to prepare in advance for your senior years by developing good exercise habits. Even if you have never been used to physical exertion, it is never too late to start on a program of gradually increasing exercise. This will also improve your sense of well-being.

If you are overweight, you should try to reduce, even though it is difficult to change eating patterns that were developed over many years. Group sessions such as those given by senior-citizen organizations, weight-reduction associations, or by dietitians and physicians may be helpful in guiding your eating habits. It is important to avoid fats (especially animal fats), sugars, and simple starches, and to substitute protein, complex carbohydrates, and high-fiber vegetables, which have low caloric value.

Far too often an older person becomes aware of the disability resulting from obesity only after having suffered from a serious illness or surgery. It should not be necessary to learn the hard way that being overweight can endanger your health and even your life.

Some causes of weight gain may be the result of illnesses rather than an imbalance between food intake and physical activity. Whenever your pattern of weight changes unexpectedly or if you have other symptoms in addition to weight gain, consult your physician.

Elderly persons with heart disease may gain weight because water tends to accumulate throughout the body. You may become aware of swelling of your legs and abdomen, which may vary throughout the day, with a tendency to worsen in the evening and improve after a night’s sleep. You may feel short of breath or experience other heart symptoms. Because the weight gain can be gradual, the connection between heart disease and fluid accumulation may be overlooked.

People with an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) may also experience weight gain. This illness may be very gradual in its onset. You may or may not be aware of a generalized slowing of your physical and mental condition, or you experience weight gain despite a limited food intake.

Heart disease, an underactive thyroid gland, and other causes of fluid retention should be investigated and proper treatment sought whenever there is unexpected weight gain.

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