January 24, 2013

UAB study examines weight loss in seniors

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In the midst of America’s obesity epidemic, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham  are taking a hard look at weight loss for older adults. Their theory: Overall fitness and body composition may be more important indicators of good health than weight.

locher_crossroads_study_sFor seniors, a few extra pounds might not be a bad thing.

“Weight loss for the sake of weight loss might not be appropriate for older adults,” said Julie Locher, Ph.D., associate professor in the Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care. “Studies indicate that overweight seniors tend to live longer than their leaner counterparts, and rapid weight loss in older adults can lead to a decline in overall physical condition.”

Locher, who is the associate director of the UAB Center for Aging, and leader of the program for public policy, nutrition and energetics, is the lead investigator for the CrossRoads study. CrossRoads, now in its third year, is examining the effect of physical activity and diet on body composition in older adults, as well as any effects those two factors have on the quality of life for seniors.

Locher said that the percentage of body fat — particularly abdominal fat that is associated with poor health outcomes — tends to increase with age. But, she noted, when older adults lose weight, they also have a greater tendency to lose lean muscle mass rather than fat.

She said one aspect of the study is to help determine a healthy weight range for seniors and help devise strategies to maximize and maintain lean muscle while minimizing abdominal fat.

The CrossRoads trial is looking for 50 additional study subjects, to round out a total complement of 180 older adults. The investigators are looking for adults age 65 and older in general good health who also are taking medication for high blood pressure or diabetes. Participants should be overweight with a body mass index between 30-40 kg/m2.

The study subjects are divided into three groups. One group is tasked to simply increase their physical activity. A second will increase physical activity and switch to a healthier diet. The third will increase physical activity, eat a healthier diet and also reduce their calorie intake.

“We’re going to look at changes in body composition among the three groups during the course of one year,” said Locher. “We’ll be measuring the percentage of body fat and track the participants’ overall health, physical condition, wellness and quality of life.”

“We hope to gain some valuable insights on the role of weight, body composition and healthy lifestyle behaviors in older adults.”

Participants will attend nutritional classes and supervised exercise sessions. Compensation and incentives are provided. Those interested in learning more about the trial can call 205-996-5295.