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Weight Loss in Elderly White Women May Foreshadow Health Problems

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WebMD Health News

Dec. 13, 1999 (Atlanta) -- A weight loss of five pounds may not seem like much, but for elderly white women it could signal the presence of a disease or other serious health problems.

In a study published in the December issue of the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, researchers studying more than 600 women in Maryland aged 65 and older discovered that underweight women who lost even more weight during the study period were four times as likely to die prematurely than were women whose weight stayed the same.

The loss could be as little as five to eight pounds for a 5-foot-5-inch woman. Also, regardless of their initial weight, women whose weight fluctuated also were at risk of an early death.

"We're not saying the weight loss caused the women to die," lead researcher Matthew Reynolds, MS, tells WebMD. "Only that the weight loss existed prior to their early death."

While researchers took into account preexisting illness, they did not factor in illnesses that struck after the study began. "We weren't looking at the reason for their weight loss or fluctuation," Reynolds tells WebMD. "Only that it may point to a condition that should be investigated by their physician." Reynolds is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

There are two things that make this study unique. First, the patients did not report their own weight, as is typical in other studies of this kind. Instead they were weighed annually between 1984 and 1986. Second, only elderly women were studied. Researchers then monitored the participants' weight over the next 12 years.

The researchers took age, smoking, alcohol use, education, and preexisting conditions into account before tabulating their results.

Reynolds says that elderly people who are overweight shouldn't relax based on this study. "Weight gain has it's own health hazards," he tells WebMD. But while so much attention is paid to obesity concerns, Reynolds notes that weight loss should be a concern, also. "Weight loss or weight cycling may signal disease or other problems that could adversely affect their mortality."

Besides illnesses often associated with aging, poor eating habits could also lead to weight loss. According to the American Dietetic Association, changes that take place during aging result in changes in nutrient needs, and that many older adults are at risk for malnutrition. "Hunger, poverty, and anorexia nervosa ... frequently precede malnutrition," writes the ADA in a prepared statement.

"Other malnutrition risk factors among older adults include inadequate food intake, social isolation, depression, dementia, dependency, functional disability, oral health and chewing and swallowing problems, presence of acute or chronic diseases or conditions, polypharmacy [taking several medications], and advanced age," according to the ADA.

Vital Information:

  • For elderly white women who are underweight, losing as little as 5 pounds may signal an increased risk of premature death.
  • Weight cycling was also associated with a risk of early death.
  • Physicians should look for underlying causes of weight loss or weight cycling, such as disease or malnutrition, among elderly women.

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