Although losing weight at any age has considerable health benefits, it turns out that dropping a few pounds after age 50 might be especially good for you.
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Hormonal and metabolic changes that commonly take place after 50 make it easier to pack on weight, Kristine Gedroic, MD, medical director of the Gedroic Medical Institute, tells LIVESTRONG.com. But while weight gain after 50 might be common, it can also be dangerous: Putting on pounds at this age, Dr. Gedroic says, increases the risk of diseases like stroke and diabetes.
But while weight gain might be risky, weight loss is possible — and worth it if your weight has crept into the unhealthy range. Here are a few of the most notable benefits.
1. A Lower Risk of Dementia
While researchers aren't clear exactly why this is, Dr. Gedroic says the gut microbiome, which can become imbalanced as we age, might be a potential link.
"Research has shown that we have a natural tendency toward an imbalanced gut, including more bad bacteria in our gut, as we grow older," she says. "An imbalance in the gut microbiome can affect brain health and has even been tied to neurodegenerative disease."
Indeed, one January 2019 study published in Scientific Reports analyzed the fecal samples of participants in a memory care clinic and found that the samples that came from patients with dementia had a higher prevalence of bad bacteria.
Eating more fruits, vegetables and high-fiber foods can contribute to weight loss, balance the gut, and lead to a healthier brain in the process, Dr. Gedroic says.
2. Fewer Hot Flashes
Hot flashes, which occur as a side effect of menopause and are most common in women over 50, are notoriously uncomfortable — and carrying extra weight can make them even more so.
"Hormones like estrogen are stored in fat tissue, so it makes sense that the more fat a woman has, the more estrogen in her body and the more pronounced her menopausal symptoms can become," Dr. Gedroic says.
In fact, one study from the December 2017 issue of BMC Women's Health found that women with obesity were "significantly" more likely to have moderate to severe menopausal symptoms as well as have them more often, including hot flashes.
3. Reduced Joint Pain and Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis, or OA, is one of the most common side effects of aging, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
With OA, the cartilage that cushions and protects the bones wears down over time, causing the bones to rub together and joints to become swollen, stiff and painful. Carrying extra weight exacerbates osteoarthritis, causing more pressure on the joint and, often, more pain.
Arthritis and damaged cartilage aren't conditions that can be reversed. But, according to the Cleveland Clinic, losing weight can put less pressure on the joints and reduce symptoms, making it easier — and less painful — to walk around.
4. A Lowered Risk of Certain Cancers
Cancers that are hormone-dependent can show up in women over 50 due to weight gain since hormones like estrogen are stored in fat, Dr. Gedroic says.
"The more fat you're carrying, the higher your hormone levels," she says. "This is why obesity in women has been linked to a higher risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer, and why women who lose weight — particularly after the age of 50 — dramatically reduce their risk of the disease."
Not surprisingly, a study published December 2019 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that women who lost weight in their 50s had a lower risk of breast cancer than women whose weight stayed the same — even if the women who lost weight ended up gaining some of it back.
What's also important to note, Dr. Gedroic says, is that obesity is also associated with a poorly functioning liver. The liver is critical to filtering out harmful chemicals like environmental pollutants and cancer-causing toxins. With cancer rates already higher due to age, having a poorly functioning liver due to obesity "increases the risk of many diseases, including cancer," she says.
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- JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute: "Sustained weight loss and risk of breast cancer in women ≥50 years: a pooled analysis of prospective data"
- Mayo Clinic: "Osteoarthritis Overview"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Why Weight Matters When It Comes to Joint Pain"
- BMC Women's Health: "Obesity trajectories and risk of dementia: 28 years of follow-up in the Whitehall II Study"
- Scientific Reports: "Analysis of the relationship between the gut microbiome and dementia: a cross-sectional study conducted in Japan"
- Alzheimer's & Dementia: "Obesity trajectories and risk of dementia: 28 years of follow-up in the Whitehall II Study"