Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
CLOSE ×
Search
Leaving AARP.org Website

You are now leaving AARP.org and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

What Your Weight in Your 50s Means for Your Health

Nothing toys with our physical or mental health quite as mercilessly as our body weight. Here’s what those extra pounds in midlife really mean to our health and longevity, and how to deal with them effectively.


spinner image woman looking in the mirror and surrounded by reminders of weight-consciousness including a scale, blood pressure cuff, heart monitor
ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTINE RÖSCH

These are the fat years. Your 50s are the time of life when you’re at your heaviest: A full 44.3 percent of Americans ages 40 to 59 are considered obese, a higher rate than among Americans in either younger or older age groups. Rates of “severe obesity” are twice as high among people 40 to 59 as they are among those 60 and over.

What’s going on here?

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine. Find out how much you could save in a year with a membership. Learn more.

Join Now

Our 50s are when a bunch of trends collide. Hormone changes in this decade cause us to accumulate fat, especially in our midsections. At the same time, age-related muscle loss means our bodies don’t burn as many calories or process blood sugar as efficiently. All of that, experts say, leads to an increased risk of obesity and with it a cascade of health complications — high blood pressure and cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, a decline in physical functioning and more.

How many pounds you weigh isn’t everything; there are plenty of people above the usual weight targets who are fully healthy. But we rely on weight as an indicator of how much body fat we’re carrying. And body fat, including where it exists, is highly influential to our health in many nonobvious ways. Think of body fat as an endocrine organ of sorts, constantly producing and releasing hormones involved in sexual function, blood clotting, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and many other roles. Being overweight isn’t necessarily a serious health issue, but being obese, and having lots of chemical-producing abdominal fat, definitely is. So: Where is that line? How do we know?

Doctors use the BMI — for “body mass index” — scale as one measure of body fat to determine whether you’re underweight, at a healthy weight, overweight or obese. Your height and weight are plugged into a formula (your weight in pounds times 703, divided by your height in inches, squared; but please, just use an online calculator) to determine your BMI. A healthy weight is set at 18.5 to 24.9, and obesity is set at 30 and above. “These cutoffs are well defined,” says Gitanjali Srivastava, M.D., medical director of Vanderbilt Obesity Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. “If you have obesity, you’re at risk for metabolic and cardiovascular complications.”

BMI is an imperfect measure because it can’t tell you where in your body your fat lives — and that may be what matters most. “Visceral fat is the fat that’s hidden in your abdominal cavity,” says Jean-Pierre Després, a professor in the department of kinesiology at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada. If you have too much of it, it can indicate that there is too much fat wrapped around your heart and in your liver. That’s far more dangerous than other types of body fat. More visceral fat means more than just a wider waistline; it means a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

5 things to know about weight gain in your 50s

There are several reasons your weight may be snowballing in your 50s, and it’s (mostly) not the fault of bad habits. “Our bodies are different in our 50s from when we were in our 20s and 30s,” Srivastava says.

1. Muscle loss has caught up to you

Starting at age 30, we begin to lose muscle at a rate of 3 to 8 percent per decade. Less muscle means a greater percentage of our bodies is made up of fat. “For reasonably healthy adults, there’s a natural increase in body fat percentage until the 80s,” says Kristen DeCarlo, M.D., a geriatrician who practices in the areas of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at UI Health in Chicago.

2. You’re probably still eating like you’re 30

Eating behaviors from your younger years — when you were more active and burning more calories — may not change just because you’re older and wiser. “We’re creatures of habit,” DeCarlo says. “We see that younger adults expend about 300 to 500 more calories per day than older adults. But you may still be eating in the same old way because you’ve gotten used to it over the years.” This growing calorie excess causes weight gain, a disproportionate amount of which — up to 70 percent — is stored fat.

3. Your fat is traveling

As you age, hormonal changes cause the fat underneath your skin (called subcutaneous fat) to begin to migrate to your abdomen, where it becomes dangerous visceral fat. You may even weigh the same as you did in your 30s but have a dramatically different body shape. When Austrian scientists scanned the bellies of 10,894 people for a 2020 study, they found that 20-year-olds had on average less than a pound of visceral fat. It surged to nearly 1.7 pounds for women and 3.6 pounds for men by their 50s, and to more than 2 pounds and 4 pounds, respectively, by their 60s.

Insurance

AARP® Vision Plans from VSP™

Exclusive vision insurance plans designed for members and their families

See more Insurance offers >

4. Menopause is sparking changes

For women, the decline in estrogen during menopause is a main factor in creating a new body shape. Up to 70 percent of women gain weight during the transition, resulting in a weight creep of 1.5 pounds per year through their 50s. By the time you’re postmenopausal, 15 to 20 percent of the fat in a woman’s body is visceral fat, compared with just 5 to 8 percent when you were premenopausal. Unfortunately, these changes are associated with higher blood pressure and cholesterol, insulin resistance and inflammation, according to a 2022 review by Columbia University researchers.

5. And muscle tone is softening

Are the collars on your button-ups too tight? It’s not the dry cleaner’s doing. As we age, our muscles loosen and become laxer, and “there can be more fat deposition in areas near the base of the tongue,” Srivastava says. A neck size greater than 16 for women or 17 inches for men, she says, can be a sign that you’re carrying excess fat in the neck, which can put you at risk for conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea.

Dangers of extra pounds

How dangerous are those extra pounds? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

“As people age, there’s a shift in what’s considered ‘safe’ or ‘reasonable’ weight,” DeCarlo says. Those who were heavy at an early age face more worrisome consequences than those who tip over into that category in their later years. One large study found that those who were of normal weight in their early 30s, but gradually became overweight (but never obese) at midlife or later, lived longer than those who remained at a “healthy” weight.

Though many of us monitor our weight out of vanity, doctors suggest you consider monitoring your weight, BMI and waist measurement as important as monitoring your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. If they get out of control, you may be in danger. When scientists tracked 190,672 adults for 10 years or longer, obesity boosted the risk for heart attacks, strokes and heart failure — and nearly tripled the odds for the most obese middle-aged group. All those extra pounds are the main reason that, despite enormous leaps forward in medications and procedures, heart disease remains the number one killer of both men and women in their 50s. “Important drivers of cardiovascular disease — obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome — are prevalent in this society,” says Anekwe Onwuanyi, M.D., professor of medicine and chief of cardiology at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Even those without obesity can be at increased risk from visceral fat, says Morgana Mongraw-Chaffin, assistant professor of epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She conducted a study of 1,005 midlife women and men, none of whom had obesity. But those with higher levels of abdominal fat raised their risk for diabetes by 51 percent and doubled their risk for metabolic syndrome — a collection of risk factors including low levels of heart-helping HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, high levels of ticker-menacing triglycerides, and above-normal blood pressure and/or blood sugar.

The good thing about visceral fat is that you can lose it quickly: One study found that just four weeks of brisk walking resulted in an inch reduction in waist circumference. “With exercise, you can lose visceral fat even if you don’t lose weight,” Després says. Reducing your waist by about 1.5 inches can reduce diabetes risk by 60 percent.

spinner image AARP Membership Card

LEARN MORE ABOUT AARP MEMBERSHIP.

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Weight and your immune system

Though we’ve long known that being significantly overweight or obese at midlife could make us especially vulnerable to disease, nothing hammered that point home harder than the COVID-19 pandemic.

The reason: Around age 50, our immune system starts to show signs of aging, says Cornelia Weyand, M.D., an immune system researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. As you might expect, being significantly overweight increases one’s vulnerability.

Midlife is prime time for body dissatisfaction because we’re squeezed by society’s double whammy. You should be thin and you shouldn’t age.

Debra Safer, psychiatrist

This has played out over the pandemic years. Researchers looked at how weight affected outcomes for about 150,000 COVID patients. They learned that patients with a BMI of 30 to 34.9 (just above the “obesity” threshold) were 7 percent more likely to be hospitalized and 8 percent more likely to die than people who were a healthy weight. Those with a BMI of 45 or higher (considered “morbidly” obese) were 33 percent more likely to be hospitalized and 61 percent more likely to die. The connection was strongest among patients younger than 65.

“Obesity increases inflammatory signals. It’s like the fire alarm is always going off but there’s no emergency, so over time the immune cells become dulled to the stimulus,” says Jessica Lancaster, assistant professor of immunology at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. “Starting around age 50, there’s a decrease in the magnitude of the response to infection, as well as a delay. When there’s a deadly virus circulating and you have a sluggish immune response due to both weight and aging, you’re going to be at increased risk.”

The immune system can rebound if you bring your weight under control. Italian researchers reported in 2022 that when people with obesity — median age 51 — lost 10 percent of their weight, their immune systems responded more strongly to a COVID mRNA vaccine. A 2022 study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital of people with obesity who lost 18 percent of their body weight after undergoing a sleeve gastrectomy (a weight-loss surgical procedure that removes a large portion of the stomach) revealed that within three months, the patients’ immune systems were measurably healthier.

How we think about weight in our 50s

All this discussion of body fat and disease skirts a big issue: For many of us, weight is first and foremost a psychological concern. How we look in the mirror often generates strong feelings about self-worth and how the world perceives us. Those emotions can have physical repercussions.

If at midlife you’re unhappy with a body that’s suddenly heavier, wider and softer, you aren’t alone:

In a large University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study, 89 percent of women in their 50s were dissatisfied with their bodies. And in a UCLA study of more than 52,000 U.S. adults, 46 percent of men 50 to 65 felt dissatisfied with their bodies for being “too heavy.”

About 52 percent of women and men in their 40s and 50s are trying to lose weight — more than in any other age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our perception of our own weight doesn’t always match reality: 26.5 percent of people dieting to lose weight are actually at a normal or low weight, this study found.

Midlife is prime time for body dissatisfaction because we’re squeezed by society’s “double whammy,” says psychiatrist Debra Safer, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University who specializes in treating eating and weight disorders. “You should be thin and you shouldn’t age.”

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Safer says. “You might think weight stigma makes you thinner, but over time people make worse choices.” Body dissatisfaction is associated with higher risk for depression, binge eating (found in 19 to 26 percent of midlife and older women in a recent study), eating a less-healthy diet and engaging in less physical activity, and may be linked to less-than-opti­mal self-care for diabetes as well as avoidance of mammograms, skin exams and other cancer checks.

“It’s like the way you treat an old pair of sneakers versus a brand-new pair,” says body image researcher Lisa Kilpela, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. “When we don’t value our bodies, we don’t treat them very well.”

Bottom line: Your 50s may be the heaviest time of your life. But the number on the scale only tells part of the story. Now is the time to take positive steps that can have an enormous impact on your current and future health.

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?