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Diet and exercise good for older adults, too

Two senior citizens sitting on their front porch sharing a laptop computer



The elderly are especially susceptible to what is known as "metabolic syndrome," an observed combination of risk factors that, taken together, represents an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. These risk factors include high blood pressure, poor cholesterol scores, and diabetes, along with high levels of the markers of inflammation. Obesity, also a risk factor for heart disease, usually increases with age, as well, compounding the elderly person's risk of heart attack.

Lifestyle changes such as improved diet and regular exercise have been shown to improve these risk factors for young and middle-aged persons, but conventional wisdom has been that lifestyle changes for the elderly are unlikely to work because their diet and exercise habits are well-established. An international research team decided to challenge that belief by recruiting a group of obese (Body Mass Index of 30 or more), sedentary, elderly persons (at least 65 years of age) to participate in a controlled study of the effect of diet and exercise changes on the elderly (Am J Clin Nutr 2006;84(6):1317-23).

Of a total of 24 men and women, 9 were assigned to a control group and were instructed to continue with their current diet and (lack of) exercise. The other 15 received weekly group meetings with a dietitian, exercise training sessions three times per week, and a prescribed balanced diet designed to achieve a loss of 10% of their body weight by the end of the six month duration of the study. All subjects had the following measurements taken at the beginning and the end of the study: waist circumference, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, inflammation levels, metabolic syndrome criteria, and body fat measurements.

The control group's measurements did not appreciably change after six months, as one might expect. The intervention group, however, improved their scores in nearly every category: they lost between 3% and 14% of their body weight and over half of those who had started the study with metabolic syndrome were free of it.

What this means for you:

It's never too late to improve your diet and get some regular exercise. If you are over 65 and are worried about exercising safely, talk to your doctor about a referral to a physical therapist, who can help you learn effective, safe ways to exercise.

First posted: December 13, 2006