Weight Loss in Elderly White Women May Foreshadow Health Problems
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
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
"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.
- 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.