Study finds unintentional weight loss in seniors may raise risk of dying

A new study drives home the importance of weighing ourselves as we get older.

Australian researchers found an unintentional weight loss of 5% to 10% body weight in seniors age 70 and older raised a person’s risk of dying.

Dr. Danny Branstetter, Chief Medical Officer at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Georgia, says the key word here is "unintentional" weight loss.

"I think the important thing that this study shows is that unintentional weight loss can be a signal for an underlying problem," Branstetter says. "It does not mean that intended weight loss in an adult that’s over 70 will have an increased risk of death. That is not what this study is saying."

Studying data from nearly 20,000 older adults weighed yearly, researchers found an unintentional weight loss of 10% was associated with a higher risk of dying from cancer, cardiovascular disease and other illnesses, in both men and women.

But the risk was higher for men.

Even a 5% unintended weight loss was enough to raise a person’s mortality risk.

"If we take 180-pound individual, that’s something like 9 or 10 pounds," Dr. Branstetter says. "So, it is not something that people would notice, but it is a signal that should be paid attention to, particularly in an older population, greater than 70."

Unexplained weight loss can be a sign of underlying health problem, including depression, cancer, gastrointestinal issues, Alzheimer’s or dementia, hyperthyroidism and diabetes.

Interestingly, weight gain in seniors was not linked to a higher death risk in this study.

But Dr. Branstetter says it’s still important to try to get to and stay at a healthy weight.

"Weight loss intended and control and under the supervision of a care provider can be a beneficial thing, particularly with underlying morbidity and mortality such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol," he says.