Have we got weight loss wrong?

We have always been told it’s healthy to keep our weight down, but a new study has found that weight loss in older people indicates an increased risk of an earlier death.

In a study by Monash University, published in the JAMA Network, scientists found that for people aged over 65, weight loss increased the likelihood of death for several conditions including cancer, cardiovascular disease and other life-limiting conditions, especially among men.

The study encompassed older adults in the Aspirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly randomised clinical trial including more than 16,000 Australians aged over 70 and about 2400 US participants, aged 65-plus. Everyone was weighed at their annual check-up between 2010 and 2014.

Mortality rate

The study found weight loss of more than 10 per cent was associated with higher mortality and the association was more pronounced among men.

“Our study found that even a 5 per cent weight loss increases mortality risk, particularly in older men,” study author Dr Monira Hussain told CNN.

Weight gain in healthy older people, on the other hand, showed no association, she added.

More than 10 per cent weight loss in men suggested they were 2.5 times more likely to die from cancer.

In women, more than 10 per cent weight loss indicated the participants were 1.78 times more likely to die from cancer.

The study did not differentiate between intended weight loss and unintended weight loss.

The Monash study differed from previous work on the issue as it excluded people with existing conditions such as chronic illness, cardiovascular disease, dementia and physical disabilities. It also excluded those with recent hospitalisations as people often lost weight after intense medical interventions. 

The study proposed that the issue was more common in men due to different body composition compared with women.

Men vs women

“For men, a higher proportion of body mass is constituted of muscle and bone mass, whereas for women, a higher proportion of body mass is composed of fat,” the study stated.

“If weight loss preceding chronic illness is predominantly loss of muscle mass and bone mass, it could explain the differences observed between men and women.”

The study found that while weight loss can signify underlying issues such as cancer or dementia, underlying chronic conditions can also trigger weight loss in older adults by affecting appetite, metabolism and eating habits.

“In this age group, weight loss was largely associated with a reduction of appetite,” the study stated.

However, as appetite is a complex process, governed by the central nervous system, inflammation and various hormones, there is no single link between weight loss and illness. 

Mobility and medication side-effects can also affect weight.

Doctors beware

The study recommended that doctors be more aware of weight loss in older patients.

“Physicians should be aware of the significant association with mortality of even relatively minor weight loss, especially among older men,” it stated.

“The risk extends beyond an increased risk of cancer, extending to cardiovascular disease and a range of other life-limiting conditions.”

Will this report change the way you think about your weight? Why not share your opinion in the comments section below?

Also read: How can you improve your winter health?

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisherhttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/author/JanFisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.


  1. IMO to be meaningful the study needed to distinguish between intended and unintended weight loss. I agree that unintended weight loss is a sign something is amiss, but not intended weight loss.

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