Can you be too thin? Absolutely.
And, of course, too much excess weight is hazardous to your health.
But carrying five to 10 extra pounds above normal weight when you are over 60 has been linked to living longer and protecting older adults from osteoporosis. This is not an endorsement of overeating and it needs to be accompanied by a regimen of physical activity to improve your muscle mass and promote healthy aging.
Your extra pounds should come from energy-dense foods, nuts and healthy fats. If you need to gain weight, it's advisable to do that gradually (as you would weight loss). I recommend using the MyPlate for Older Adults, developed by nutrition scientists at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, as a guide to creating well-balanced meals.
A meta-analysis of 97 studies, involving more than 2.8 million people around the world, published in the Journal of American Medical Association confirmed the link between obesity and death but also revealed that people slightly overweight may live longer than people of normal body weight. Australian researchers writing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition provide further evidence that for older populations, being overweight was not associated with greater risk of death but that the risk did increase for older people with a BMI less than 23.
How else can those extra pounds help? A little extra padding can help cushion brittle bones and decrease your risk of hip fracture. Also, to remain strong, bones need to carry weight so those extra pounds help increase bone density. And for women, fat helps estrogen production which is good for healthy bones.
That extra weight may also help your immune system. Fighting infection requires energy, proteins and micronutrients. One consequence of infection is that you lose your appetite and, if continued, a loss of muscle mass, energy and nutrient reserves could occur. So when a cold or pneumonia leaves a person uninterested or unable to eat and zaps their energy, the system won't be depleted with some weight to spare, which also allows you to maintain the strength needed to support your immune response and your ability to get rid of the infection.
Also, when you cut yourself and are exposed to bacteria your immune system needs to kick in to fight the possible infection, which takes time. We now know, thanks to research from the University of California at San Diego, that the layer of fat under the skin at the site of the infection will immediately increase in size and produce an antimicrobial that acts as a "first responder" in fighting the infection. They studied this in mice using the MRSA bacteria, which is resistant to many antibiotics and is common among people in hospitals and nursing homes.
Your body mass index (BMI) is the best measure of determining whether you're at a healthy weight. To check your BMI you have to know your height and weight and then use the handy NIH calculator. Typically a BMI in the range of 18.5 to 24.9 is normal (anyone with a BMI more than 30 is considered obese and risks many life-threatening conditions).
Advocating for extra weight comes with controversy but I find the research compelling and believe it is beneficial for adults over 60.
For older adults of all sizes it's important to stay physically active and build your muscles. You want the extra weight to be mostly muscle and not fats. Movement and exercise are essential for healthy aging and some experts say that "fitness" may be more important than "fatness." Researchers have found that moderate daily activity and weight-bearing exercises help with mobility and can reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease. Create a plan for yourself using the ideas and tools on the Go4Life website, specially designed for older adults by the National Institute on Aging.
Often working against older adults is appetite loss that may be related to medications, loss of taste and smell, loneliness, or depression. You should consult with your doctor to determine why this is happening. Here are some simple tips that might help you gain your appetite. Like anything else, practice makes perfect -- research shows that stimulating your sense of smell and taste will help keep them young.
So, spice up your food, stop and smell that flower, and don't forget to get together with friends and family for a nutritious meal.
For some, those few extra pounds have an added cosmetic bonus. Often body fat provides a bit of volume replacement and fills in wrinkles and sunken areas of your face. While not a real health benefit, looking good usually makes people feel good and feeling good and positive goes a long way towards staying healthy and vibrant!