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Middle-aged obesity linked to elderly disability

Date

Kate Hagan

The heavier you are in middle age the more likely you are to have difficulty taking care of yourself in older age, a major analysis shows, with problems bathing and dressing increasing as people become more overweight.

Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute researcher Anna Peeters made the finding after conducting an analysis of data from about 6000 people included in a long-term Melbourne study aimed at identifying risk factors for chronic illness.

Researchers compared respondents’ body mass index (BMI) - a measure of fat - in middle age to levels of ‘‘self care disability’’ 14 years later, including whether they had any difficulty bathing, eating, dressing, going to the toilet or getting out of a chair or bed.

They found 57 per cent of those who were obese in middle age had a self-care disability in older age, compared to 23 per cent of those who had been in a healthy weight range.

People who were obese in middle age were also more likely to have difficulty walking about 200 metres, with half of obese people struggling to do so compared to 13 per cent of those in a healthy weight range.

Associate Professor Peeters included the analysis in a report for VicHealth which provides a snapshot of obesity in Australia and its likely impact into the future.

Nearly two-thirds of Australians are now classified as overweight or obese, which is projected to increase to 83 per cent of men and 75 per cent of women by 2025 if current trends continue.

Associate Professor Peeters said the alarming figures came as levels of severe obesity showed the largest increases, and people from the lowest socioeconomic groups were most affected.

She said Australians were fighting a tide of environmental factors that led to poor diet and physical activity which, if left unchecked, would cause widespread health problems in the future.

‘‘Our research showing that overweight and obesity in middle age will compromise people’s ability to live independently in old age has implications for the coming generation of elderly, their families and government,’’ she said.

‘‘This underscores the importance of increasing our efforts to prevent weight gain throughout life and support those who are overweight and obese to get appropriate treatment.’’

Other health problems associated with obesity include musculo-skeletal problems, cardiovascular disease, some cancers, sleep apnoea, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.

VicHealth chief executive Jerril Rechter said obesity was ‘‘one of the most significant and complicated public health emergencies we now face as a society’’ and tackling it would take more than asking individuals to change their diet and increase levels of exercise.

The VicHealth report recommended a suite of measures to address obesity including for federal and state governments to set a positive example through food procurement and catering policies for hospitals and other public institutions.

It also called for workplaces to play a greater role in encouraging a healthy workforce including conducting standing or walking meetings, locating printers and rubbish bins away from desks, and providing access to healthy foods in vending machines.

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