Researchers now know why we gain weight as we grow older

Scientists have found that as we age, the body processes lipids at a slower rate. This is a major contributor to weight gain, and even obesity, in old age.

Myupchar September 12, 2019 13:59:24 IST
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Researchers now know why we gain weight as we grow older
  • Scientists have found that as we age, the body processes lipids at a slower rate - this is a major contributor to weight gain, and even obesity, in old age

  • Apart from storing energy, lipids form a protective layer around our nerves and they are crucial for healthy cell membranes

  • Scientists have found that the body of a 60-year-old will have slower lipid-turnover than the body of a 20-year-old

It’s natural to gain weight as we age. Now research has unpacked one of the reasons why this happens, and how we can slow this weight-gain down.

In a 13-year study, scientists at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, found that as we age, the body processes lipids at a slower rate. This is a major contributor to weight gain, and even obesity, in old age.

Researchers now know why we gain weight as we grow older

Representational image. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

To be sure, our bodies need lipids (fats, waxes, oils, steroids, they occur in many forms in the body). Apart from storing energy, lipids form a protective layer around our nerves and they are crucial for healthy cell membranes - the outer layer of every cell in our body.

The new research — led by Dr Peter Arner, a professor at the Department of Medicine, Karolinska Institutet — was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine.

Why is this important

We all know that a body mass index — weight to height ratio — of over 25 is a sign of being overweight. Usually, this occurs because we consume more calories than we can burn. The body stores these calories as fat.

What the Sweden-based scientists have uncovered is the link between fat accumulation and age: they have found that the body of a 60-year-old will have slower lipid-turnover than the body of a 20-year-old. This is irrespective of other factors, like the amount of exercise they get.

This is especially important now, given that obesity is taking on epidemic proportions. The world over, more people are also living to an older age because of advancements in modern medicine.

What does it mean for us

Globally, a staggering 650 million people are obese - another 1.9 billion fall in the overweight category. About 2.8 million people die every year because of complications linked to their weight.

In India, more than 135 million people are obese - estimates show that anywhere from 16.9% to 36.3% have abdominal obesity or big bellies. Central or abdominal obesity increases one’s risk for developing heart disease - a major cause of mortality in India.

Obesity also increases the risk of other health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and gynaecological and digestive problems.

“Some experts argue that people over 35 years of age are thrice as likely to be overweight than people between 18 and 24 years. The question is why does this happen?” said Dr Ayush Pandey, a medical practitioner associated with myUpchar.com

The long research journey 

In 2015 researchers pointed out that dysregulation of lipid metabolism may be the reason for various health conditions arising with age. However, this study — published in the Computational and Structural Biotechnology Journal — did not propose a direct link between obesity and fat metabolism.

For their collaborative research, scientists at the Karolinska Institutet and Uppsala University in Sweden and the University of Lyon in France studied the fat cells of 54 men and women for a period of 13 years. They found that with age, the human body starts to burn less and less fat: unless the people in the study actively reduced their calorie intake as they aged, they gained 20% weight on average.

A cure for obesity?

In modern medicine, the fixes for obesity involve surgery and/or lifestyle and dietary changes - bariatric surgery is an extreme option that doctors usually reserve for patients living with conditions like diabetes and hypertension in addition to being overweight.

This study is a first-of-its-kind because it shows that our fat tissue changes with age, irrespective of other factors. What this does is empower people with information - now each one of us has greater incentive to cut back on calories and fats, to make up for what we lose in lipid metabolism as we age.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. To know more about this topic, please see How To Lose Belly Fat.

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