Maintaining a healthy weight after menopause may improve women's chances of living into their mid-80s while keeping their health and mobility, a new study shows.
Women tend to put on weight after menopause. But not much was known about how extra pounds affect their ability to get around in old age.
"We chose to do this study because we wanted to learn more about the health status of older women, who represent a growing segment of the U.S. population," Eileen Rillamas-Sun told Reuters Health in an email.
Rillamas-Sun led the study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.
"We recognized that the health status of older women varies widely and we focused on obesity because of the high rates of obesity in this country," she said.
The researchers looked at 36,611 women who enrolled in a large, long-term health study between 1993 and 1998, when they were 66 to 81 years old.
The researchers followed the women for nearly 19 years. They wanted to see how women's body mass index (BMI) - a measure of weight in relation to height - and waist size were associated with their chances of dying or developing chronic diseases or mobility problems by age 85.
As it turned out, women who were obese at the beginning of the study were more likely to have trouble getting around. Of women who lived to be 85 years old, 6,702 were disabled.
About 12 percent of those who started the study at a healthy weight were disabled by age 85.
That compared to 18 percent of overweight women and between 26 and 34 percent of obese women who had mobility problems, the researchers reported in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Similarly, 25 percent of women with a waist circumference greater than 88 centimeters (about 35 inches) were disabled at age 85 compared to 14 percent of women who had smaller waists.
"This was an important finding because I believe that maintaining the ability to walk is very important to older adults, especially because it is useful for retaining one's independence," Rillamas-Sun said.
Compared to women of a healthy weight, overweight and obese women were also at a higher risk of dying or developing chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Luckily, Rillamas-Sun said, it's easy for people to learn both their BMI and waist circumference. Then they can assess their own risks.
"For BMI, one only needs to know their height and weight and for waist circumference, a tape measure is all that is needed. There are many resources online, including BMI calculators and guides for how to accurately measure one's waist circumference," she said.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has a BMI calculator here: 1.usa.gov/XBIO5L.
"People who are 85 and older are the fastest-growing part of our population right now," Dr. Sharon Brangman told Reuters Health. Brangman is past president of the American Geriatrics Society and chief of geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. She was not involved in this study.
Brangman said as people get older they want to keep their independence and not be a burden.
But, she said, lifestyles have shifted so people are eating more calories than they need and not moving around as much.
Brangman said the new study highlights the importance of following a healthy diet and getting some exercise every day.