Many people find that it gets harder to lose weight or keep the pounds off as they get older. There are many reasons for this. Some are scientific while others are lifestyle-related.
However, research shows that we tend to gain one to two pounds per year [mfn]Strategies to Prevent Weight Gain – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK133218/pdf/Bookshelf_NBK133218.pdf[/mfn]. While this may not seem like a lot, it can lead to significant weight gain and even obesity over time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines obesity in adults as having a body mass index of 30.0 or more. In 2017–2018, the prevalence of obesity in the United States was 40.0% among adults aged 20 to 39, 44.8% among those aged 40 to 59, and 42.8% among people aged 60 and over.
Of course, weight is influenced by several factors including genetics, diet, and level of physical activity. Therefore, not everyone becomes overweight as they get older.
Still, most people discover that losing or maintaining weight becomes more difficult as each year passes. If you’ve found yourself in this situation, here are some of the reasons you may be struggling to reach your ideal weight.
You Lose Muscle Mass As You Age
Once you pass the age of 30, the amount of lean muscle in your body drops by three to eight percent per decade. This is a natural process known as sarcopenia. If you become less active because of an injury or age-related medical condition, these factors will all work together to reduce your muscle mass [mfn] Muscle tissue changes with aging https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804956/pdf/nihms131937.pdf[/mfn].
Muscle burns more calories than fat. If you don’t engage in strength train to build and maintain your muscle mass, your body will require fewer calories. However, if continue to take in the same number of calories as you did in your younger years, you will likely gain weight.
Metabolism Slows Down Over Time
Metabolism is the process by which calories are converted into energy and it’s likely to slow down when muscle mass declines. The less muscle and the more fat you have, the less likely you are to burn calories.
In addition, since many people become less active as they get older, metabolism slows down further. Certain medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, also affect one’s metabolic rate.
Lipid Turnover Decreases As You Get Older
Another factor to consider is that lipid turnover in fat tissue declines as you age and this can make it easier to gain weight. This happens even if you’re eating and exercising the same as you did when you were younger, according to research from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.
The researchers carried out a longitudinal study in which they looked at the fat cells in 54 men and women over an average of 13 years. During this time, all the participants showed a reduction in the rate at which fat was removed and stored, regardless of whether they lost or gained weight.
The individuals who didn’t respond to this reduction by consuming fewer calories increased their weight by an average of 20 percent.
Sleep Deprivation is Linked to Weight Gain
It is recommended that people between the ages of 18 and 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep per day. People aged 65 and older need seven to eight hours of sleep. Unfortunately, many don’t get the rest they need and this can lead to weight gain and difficulty with weight loss.
The Nurses’ Health Study tracked 68,000 middle-aged American women for up to 16 years. It found that those who had five hours or less of sleep were 15 percent more likely to become obese than those who slept for seven hours.
Even when a cohort of younger women was also analyzed, the researchers found a connection between working a mix of day, evening, and night shifts with obesity. The longer nurses worked what is known as rotating night shift, the greater their risk of developing obesity and diabetes.
There are several reasons why this correlation exists.
How Sleep Deprivation May Be Linked to Weight Gain
Chronic sleep deprivation can either lead to an increase in the amount of food people eat or a decrease in the calories they burn.
Researchers theorize that lack of sleep can increase food intake by:
- Giving people more time to eat
- Increasing hunger especially for foods heavy in carbohydrates and fat because of lower leptin levels and higher ghrelin levels
- Encouraging people to eat out, snack more, and have an irregular meal schedule
Meanwhile, calorie expenditure can drop because of:
- Reduced physical activity because individuals are tired during the day
- A drop in body temperature that could lead to reduced energy expenditure
People Move Less and Experience More Stress with Age
Individuals often experience weight loss challenges in their forties and fifties because they become more sedentary. Many are peaking in their careers so they may sit at a desk for eight or more hours every day without making time for exercise.
They may also find it hard to eat nutritious meals at lunch, opting for a snack from the vending machine or high-calorie takeout instead.
Reduced physical exercise can also lead directly to poor eating habits. When you engage in physical activity, you get a boost in endorphins which help you to feel calm and happy.
Unfortunately eating sugary or fatty foods can have a similar effect since they cause a spike in dopamine. If you stop exercising, you may turn to unhealthy foods when you need those feel-good chemicals.
Then, there’s the issue of high stress levels. Work-related stress has been linked to a spike in a hormone called ghrelin which makes you hungrier [mfn]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2915752/pdf/IJPEP2010-460549.pdf[/mfn].
Hormonal Changes Accompany Aging
Both men and women experience changes in hormone levels as they get older. For women, menopause causes a decrease in estrogen that makes it more likely that they will put on weight around the abdomen.
Menopause typically occurs between the ages of 45 and 55 and it helps to explain why some middle-aged women find it hard to maintain their desired weight.
The fluctuations in estrogen that occur during perimenopause can also lead to mood changes that make it challenging to stick to a healthy diet and exercise routine. As a result, women tend to gain an average of five pounds as they transition to menopause.
Meanwhile, men experience a decline in testosterone as they get older [mfn]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2544367/#:~:text=Changes%20in%20testosterone%20levels%20with%20aging&text=Total%20testosterone%20levels%20fall%20at,(Feldman%20et%20al%202002)./[/mfn]. The levels gradually decline by about one to two percent per year from age 40 and this can make it harder for men to lose weight [mfn]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3799011/[/mfn].
To compound matters, both men and women are affected by a reduction in the production of growth hormone by the pituitary gland. This decline begins in middle age and it makes it harder for the body to make and maintain muscle and burn calories.
Getting Older Comes with Significant Lifestyle Changes
Weight gain may not be solely due to things happening inside the body. Sometimes, the life changes you’re going through are a significant factor. When people enter their thirties, they often start a family.
The gym may go on the back burner when there’s a toddler to care for or homework to supervise. Parents often complain that they don’t have time for themselves and this can prevent them from sticking to a meal plan or exercise schedule.
Other life events that can lead to weight gain include:
- Changing jobs if you end up with a heavier workload or a longer, more stressful commute
- Starting a new relationship and eating out more or participating in more sedentary activities
- Going through a breakup that interferes with sleep or increases the stress hormone cortisol that can lead to cravings
What to Do to Prevent Weight Gain
Even though people tend to gain weight as they get older, you can take steps to avoid weight gain and obesity. If you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, you’ll be able to reduce your risk of developing several chronic diseases including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Some types of cancer
To drop the pounds and maintain a healthy weight, you’ll need to:
Establish and maintain a healthy eating pattern
Eating a nutritious breakfast every day
Getting 60 to 90 minutes of moderate physical activity several days per week
Monitoring your weight and adjusting your diet and activity levels accordingly
Seeking support from family, friends, and professionals where necessary
A Note on Bariatric Surgery
For some individuals, diet and exercise aren’t enough to help them achieve a healthy weight. Depending on the circumstances, doctors may recommend a bariatric procedure. This can take the form of a gastric balloon, gastric bypass surgery, gastric sleeve surgery, or a duodenal switch, based on the patient’s needs and situation.
It’s important to remember that people who undergo bariatric procedures still need to engage in physical activity and pay attention to what they consume. If you’re considering weight loss surgery or wondering if you qualify, contact the team at Renew Bariatrics to discuss any questions you may have.