According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity is linked to at least 13 types of cancer. Some are hormone-related: Obesity creates inflammation, which disrupts the immune system, and causes dysregulation of the hormonal system. “Obesity leads to an increase in certain hormones that lead to an increase in cancer: breast, endometrial, thyroid, pancreas and so forth,” says Omar Ghanem, M.D., a metabolic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “Those connections are well established, and we know that losing weight with bariatric surgery can reduce the risk,” he says.
Bariatric surgery has been shown to reduce cancers that aren’t related to hormone levels. In a recent analysis of 15 studies, including a total of nearly 950,000 people with obesity who underwent bariatric surgery and more than 17 million who didn’t, the researchers found that the surgery group had an almost 50 percent reduction in the risk of liver, colorectal, kidney, urinary tract, esophageal and lung cancers.
Obesity is also a risk factor for developing an autoimmune disease, a problem that becomes more common with age, particularly in women. These diverse conditions, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, occur when the immune system starts attacking the body’s own healthy tissues. “People with rheumatoid arthritis in particular have premature immune aging,” says Cornelia Weyand, M.D., an immune system researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “Their immune age is about 25 years older than their actual age.”
The last three years have driven home how obesity can impact the immune system. Researchers recently looked at how weight affected outcomes for some 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.
But the immune system can rebound if you bring your weight under control. A 2022 study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital of people with obesity who lost 18 percent of their body weight after weight-loss surgery revealed that within just three months, the patients’ immune systems were measurably healthier, with reduced white blood cell levels and reduced inflammation.
How we think about weight
Conventional wisdom once said that “feeling fat” was strictly a young person’s problem. Now a wave of research is uncovering long-overlooked struggles — and newfound wisdom — about weight and body image for people in their 60s. “It’s not like you grow out of a negative body image,” says psychologist and body image researcher Lisa Kilpela, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. “There are a lot of reasons to suspect it could get worse with age for some people.”
"It’s not like you grow out of a negative body image. There are a lot of reasons to suspect it could get worse with age for some people."
Over half of women in their 60s say weight or body shape concerns have a negative impact on their lives. In one large University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill survey, up to 64 percent thought about their weight every day. Men aren’t exempt. Half in a small Canadian study of men ages 60 to 83 said they felt unattractive because of their weight.
Body dissatisfaction made 17 percent of men and 39 percent of women ages 50 to 65 uncomfortable wearing a bathing suit in public, according to a UCLA survey of over 52,000 U.S. adults. But in your 60s, a negative body image can have far more serious consequences: Binge-eating was a problem for up to 26 percent of women ages 55 to 83 in a recent study by Kilpela and others. “For the longest time, people didn’t think older women had eating disorders,” Kilpela says. “Older women who come to our lab say things like, ‘Thank you for thinking of us. We thought we’d be the forgotten ones because of our age.’ ”
Body dissatisfaction is associated with higher risk of depression, poorer sleep and less than optimal self-care. “It’s like the way you treat an old pair of sneakers versus a brand-new pair,” says Kilpela.
Of course, not everyone in their 60s battles big-time body dissatisfaction, 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. In a study of body image and “fat talk” in women ages 18 to 87, just 12 percent of those 61 and older said they harangued themselves frequently about their weight — the lowest number of any age category in the study.
“Self-compassion is the antidote,” Safer says. “Compassion for all your body has allowed you to do and still enables you to do.”
6 Most Effective Weight-Loss Steps to Take in Your 60s
Eat less, move more. Losing weight comes down to just those four words, right? Not really. Decades of research show that effective weight loss involves food choices as much as, if not more than, food volume. And certain lifestyle choices significantly affect success or failure. These six steps are widely accepted as key to effective weight loss.
1. Start your day with protein
Studies show that “protein timing”— eating 25 to 30 grams of protein in the morning, and the same amount at lunch and dinner—helps people at midlife and beyond maintain muscle mass, which in turn reduces fat gain. This is the basis of AARP’s New York Times bestseller The Whole Body Reset. The average American currently eats about 10 grams at breakfast and about 60 grams at dinner.
2. Choose farm foods over factory foods
That means fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, seafood, olive and avocado oils, low-fat dairy and lean meat throughout the day. The fewer processed foods, the better. Foods in their natural form are the basis of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which are consistently rated as the best programs for weight management, heart health and longevity.
3. Move at least 30 minutes a day
Daily active living beats a few weekly gym sessions and sitting around the rest of the time. Aim for a total of at least 150 minutes of movement per week — walking swimming, biking, gardening — for cardiovascular fitness, and at least two days a week of resistance training for muscular strength, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
4. Cut down on simple carbohydrates, especially sugar
That means minimizing cookies, sodas and other sweets. Simple carbs not only fill you up with calories while providing minimal nutrition, but a higher carbohydrate intake leads to water retention, making you look, feel and weigh heavier.
5. Stop eating at 7 p.m.
Eating later in the evening increases your next-day hunger, decreases your next-day calorie burn and triggers your body to store more fat, according to a recent study.
6. Go to bed at least seven hours before you need to wake up
Ghrelin is the hormone created in the stomach that signals us to eat. Sleeping less than seven hours a night has been shown to elevate ghrelin, meaning you may be driven to consume more calories the next day.