fitness · weight loss

New research shows: weight gain as we get older… happens. But scientists don’t like it.

CW: discussion of body weight, weight gain, and claims of personal responsibility for weight changes.

Yes, you heard it here first, folks: when we get older, we tend to gain weight. But you don’t have to take my word for it; I’ve got tables and things from science to back this up:

table showing average body weight (in pounds) increasing for women as they age.
table showing average body weight (in pounds) increasing for women as they age.

Of course all women know this, and we’re constantly reminded to fight weight gain through restricted eating and increased exercise. Now, I’m all for spending time enjoying a variety of physical activities, and plan on doing so for the foreseeable future. Just like Notorious RBG.

But can I expect to lose or maintain my weight over time by physical activity and restrictive eating? No, say some Swedish researchers. Here’s what this news article has to say about their results:

Lipid turnover in the fat tissue decreases during aging and makes it easier to gain weight, even if we don’t eat more or exercise less than before… “The results indicate for the first time that processes in our fat tissue regulate changes in body weight during aging in a way that is independent of other factors,” says Peter Arner, professor at the Department of Medicine in Huddinge at Karolinska Institutet and one of the study’s main authors.

I’m no human metabolism science expert, but I think the upshot here is this: the rate of lipid turnover (part of human metabolic activity that affects weight maintenance and change over time) varies in the population. Experts thought that we could improve our rates of lipid turnover through exercise. Turns out, not so much.

In a way, this is good news– it’s offering another scientific puzzle piece to provide a picture of what we already know: in general, people gain weight as they age, independently of their eating and activity behaviors. This opens the door to shifting talk away from addressing how older bodies look and toward how older bodies feel and function for those who have them.

But this shift is not something that will come easily, and even metabolic researchers are struggling against this model, hanging on for dear life to the view that we do or should work to wrench some control over our bodily processes– even our own lipid turnover rates. They seem not to be able to help themselves despite their best efforts, a lot of calculus and cool figures like this one:

This is supposed to show that lipid uptake is the main driver of weight loss following bariatric surgery. Okay, then.

In the article, they say this about effects of lipid turnover on long-term weight loss after bariatric surgery:

…these results indicate that the success of long-term weight loss after bariatric surgery is predicted by lipid removal rate status and that individuals with a lower baseline removal rate may have more ‘room’ to attain energy balance.

Okay, this is interesting. We are getting a potential explanation for variations in long-term weight loss after bariatric surgery. Good to know. And also good to know that it’s not something that we can currently control (until they develop, say, some drug to alter lipid turnover rates).

But wait. The article simply can’t leave it at that. They have to fall back on the idea that some “lifestyle strategy” might work to address changes in human metabolism over time.

These results encourage the development of therapeutic and lifestyle strategies to counteract age-related decreases in lipid turnover rates and recognize the importance to adapt adipose lipid turnover for the maintenance of normal weight or weight loss.

You know what they mean by “lifestyle strategy”. They’re not talking about developing a new hobby or adding a deck onto the back of your house, along with new patio furniture.

They’re talking about dieting and increased exercise– that’s what they mean by “lifestyle strategy”. But the whole point of the article was that those things don’t prevent weight gain as we age– lipid turnover rate does.

a pin that says "heavy sigh".
I need a pin like this, saying “heavy sigh”.

I am all for lifestyle strategies to improve my quality of life now and in the future. By the way, the archery looks kind of fun. Anyone do archery? Tell us about it.

What I’m not all for is this: maintaining the same tired view that it’s up to me to try to lose weight throughout my life course, regardless of my other health metrics and life situation, and regardless of new-new research suggesting that some important factors influencing weight change over time are totally out of our hands. That tired view needs to be put to rest.

Or maybe blown up.

an explosion in a field.

Readers, what do you think? Is your community still focused on weight loss throughout life? What views are you hearing about aging and weight? And don’t forget any archery tips you might have as well.

7 thoughts on “New research shows: weight gain as we get older… happens. But scientists don’t like it.

  1. This comment came to my Twitter mailbox and I thought I’d share it here. I don’t know what the answer is.

    “Hi Samantha, this article is a bit confusing because as we age, at least after 65, average weight goes down again. I suppose at that time our muscles are shrinking and our bones are getting less dense :-(”

    So maybe we gain weight for awhile and then lose it again?

    1. Thanks for forwarding this. Yes, I need to focus more clearly on the decades of weight gain, which are 30s–50s. That is where medical scientists are focusing their worries. Once we hit our 60s, average weight drops for a bunch of reasons (depending on what data was included/excluded and why). I’ll look at this when I get home and will update it and repost the update, if you don’t mind. Glad to have the chance to think more about this. Bottom line though: this research is identifying a mechanism influencing weight gain as a result of aging, one that is a strong determinant even of long-term weight loss following bariatric surgery. Then to say that we need to redouble our efforts at lifestyle changes to address this– during this 2–3 decade period– seems a waste of resources.

  2. That’s how I read the data too. That said, I’ve kind of given up on it – I try to eat reasonably healthy and I’m pretty active and I’m trying hard to not obsess given that it doesn’t seem to matter what I do. Got that menopausal spare tire. The article doesn’t mention other data that being super thin in older age increases the likelihood of osteoporosis so there’s that.

    1. Hi there– I replied to Sam’s post, which should also explain some of what I meant to say here as well. I’ll revisit the post later to update and fine-tune it. And yes, there is data suggesting the protective roles that some higher BMI categories play in both health and mortality in older people. It’s not uncontroversial, but then what is…

  3. Just wondering at what age I get to say I DON’T CARE! As a girl/teenager/young woman: nobody likes a fat girl and you won’t get a boyfriend/husband; pre-children – too fat and you won’t get pregnant; post kids – setting a bad example for your kids; letting yourself go; husband won’t want to have sex with you; older – you can still be fit and you’ll live a longer more fulfilling life. I just want to say SHUT UP and let me be whatever I want to be!! When do I get to decide? Thanks to this blog for advocating that women choose who and what they want to be and to decide for themselves what fit and happy is!

  4. It’s interesting that the researchers seem only to be looking at weight but not at overall changes in body composition. I’m heavier now in my early 50s than I was in my early 20s partly because yeah, there’s more pudge there, but I’ve also put on something like 15 to 20 pounds of muscle over those 30 years. So saying that I just “gained weight” doesn’t really tell anyone anything much, because a big chunk of that gain wasn’t actually fat.

    I’d be much more interested in the results of a study in overall body composition, like shifts in percentage of fat vs shifts in percentage of lean mass. I think that probably would be a much more useful study.

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