While the obesity epidemic rages on — with about 40 percent of American adults meeting the criteria for being seriously overweight — there's a lesser known flip side to weight and health concerns. And it starts around age 80.
"While obesity is the number one risk factor for people in middle age to early old age, adults over 80 face a different set of challenges,” explains Barbara Nicklas, professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
As she explains it, obesity-related conditions including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer are some of the leading causes of preventable premature death for those in middle age. But those who survive to age 80, such risk factors start to go down.
And so, too, may the number you're seeing on the scale. While people naturally tend to gain weight up until age 75 or 80, over age 80 they tend to decrease in weight, Nicklas explains.
The ideal body mass index (BMI) for people over 64, experts agree, is between 24 to 29. “But the mortality curve certainly shows the advantage to being at the top of that range,” Nicklas says, or even slightly over a BMI of 30 — defined as obese — once you hit age 80.
"The BMI curve shifts to the right as you age,” Nicklas explains, “meaning higher weight is better in older age.” Those extra pounds buffer against unintended weight loss due to digestive system conditions (or things like dental issues) that prevent people from eating enough. They can also offer protection from heart failure or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). And extra padding can help prevent life-threatening fractures if an older old person falls.