Unwanted Weight Loss Is Cause for Concern (duh)

This news just rolled in from the department of DUH at JAMA Network Open. Unwanted weight loss in older persons is a cause for concern. Perhaps some people have sailed through life without seeing a loved one wither when they suffer a devastating illness. But for most of us, this is not a big news flash. Researchers found this issue to be particularly important for men.

In older men who were not necessarily seeking to lose weight, losing more than ten percent of body weight predicted an almost 300 percent rise in the risk of death within about four years.

But no, this does not mean that weight loss was the cause of death. More likely, it was an early signal of a looming health issue.

Senior Citizens in
Australia and the U.S.

This was a study of 16,703 Australians of 70 years and older. For good measure, the researchers threw in 2,411 Americans 65 and  older. Upon their enrollment in the study, they had no obvious heart disease, dementia, disability, chronic disease that would limit their lives. Researchers measured their weight and waist circumference when they enrolled and again two years later.

For men, a drop in weight of five to ten percent, mortality went up by 33 percent. With more than ten percent weight loss, the increase was 289 percent. For women, the elevation of risk was a bit lower, 26 and 114 percent for five to ten percent and greater than ten percent weight loss, respectively.

Of course, this is not evidence that weight loss is causing an early death. To the contrary, these researchers were quite clear about what is going on:

“A likely explanation for these findings is that weight loss can be an early prodromal indicator of the presence of various life-shortening diseases. Although it is widely acknowledged that weight loss may precede a diagnosis of cancer, in our study, weight loss also preceded an increased mortality from CVD and other causes. The latter may include deaths from trauma, dementia, Parkinson disease, and other less common causes.”

Less Clarity in Headlines

Unfortunately, news reports were not so clear. One headline falsely tells us “losing weight later in life could raise risk of early death.” The most accurate reporting came from Newser, telling us that “for seniors, weight loss may be a warning sign.”

That’s the real bottom line here. A healthy human body maintains its weight within a range that keeps us healthy. Unwanted weight gain or loss is a signal that something isn’t working quite right. It’s a biological glitch that’s worth our attention. What it’s not is a failure of choice.

Click here for the study in JAMA Network Open and here for a sample of the reporting on this study from CNN.

Old Man in Sorrow, painting by Vincent van Gogh / WikiArt

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April 13, 2023

2 Responses to “Unwanted Weight Loss Is Cause for Concern (duh)”

  1. April 13, 2023 at 7:41 am, Anthony Fabricatore said:

    “A healthy human body maintains its weight within a range that keeps us healthy. Unwanted weight gain or loss is a signal that something isn’t working quite right.”
    I’ve heard, and even spoken, the substance of this quote before, but I think this is the clearest, most accessible, and most succinct delivery I’ve come across. I hope you don’t mind if I use it – appropriately attributed, of course!

    • April 13, 2023 at 7:56 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Anthony. No higher compliment than to be quoted by you.