|September 27, 2005
Men and women who lose weight unexpectedly in their golden years may be at increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, a new study reports. The weight loss may occur well before the forgetfulness, personality changes, and other troubling symptoms of Alzheimer's become apparent. Shedding pounds does not appear to be a cause of Alzheimer's; rather, in some instances, it may be a sign that changes contributing to an increased risk of the disease may be taking place.
Weight loss is common in the elderly and can result from many causes. Serious diseases, such as cancer or depression, as well as poor mobility and an inability to prepare meals may all contribute to poor nutrition and weight loss in seniors. Losing weight without dieting by no means indicates a pending diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. However, the current study found, it may be an early warning sign.
Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago recruited 820 nuns, priests, and brothers as part of the ongoing Religious Orders Study. All were at least 65 years old and were given regular physical exams and memory tests for an average of 11 years.
At the end of the study period, 151 of the participants had developed Alzheimer's. The researchers found that losing a pound a year increased the risk of developing the disease by, on average, 5 percent. Dropping a point in your BMI, or body mass index, a popular measure of body fat composition based on weight and height, increased Alzheimer's risk even more: by 35 percent. (You can calculate your BMI here.) For example, a six-foot-tall man who weighs 190 pounds and loses 7 pounds a year would be at 35 percent increased risk of Alzheimer's disease. A 5-foot-tall woman who loses 5 pounds a year would be at similar increased risk.
The weight loss doesn't cause Alzheimer's, the researchers said. Rather, it appears to be a physical symptom of the disease that may appear years before memory loss, personality changes, and other telltale symptoms emerge.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, is consistent with results from an earlier 2005 London study that similarly found that weight loss may forewarn of Alzheimer's . Other studies have found that women who gain weight after age 70 may be at reduced risk of developing the disease.
People who care for persons with Alzheimer's disease have long known that those affected with the illness tend to lose weight. One theory is that confusion and subtle memory loss may interfere with a person's ability to prepare or remember to eat regular meals. In the current study, however, the nuns, priests, and brothers all lived in convents or monasteries and did not have to cook or serve their own meals. The researchers speculate that in its early stages, Alzheimer's disease may damage areas of the brain involved with weight control.
Weight Loss & Alzheimer's Care
Alzheimer's experts suggest that older men and women who lose weight unexpectedly but who are otherwise healthy be monitored regularly for memory loss or other signs of Alzheimer's. It's important to note, however, that many elderly people who lose weight do not go on to develop Alzheimer's disease.
It's also important that all seniors, with or without Alzheimer's, receive nutritious and regular meals. Poor nutrition may weaken bones and predispose to other ailments. For those with Alzheimer's, symptoms may be worsened by poor nutrition.
In addition to careful monitoring, some simple additional measures may help those caring for someone with Alzheimer's. For example, researchers report that using brightly colored tableware may make it easier for those with advanced Alzheimer's disease to see the food and beverages in front of them, leading them to eat and drink more at mealtimes. [See the article "Brighten Mealtimes to Enhance Alzheimer's Care."]
For more on Alzheimer's diagnosis and caregiving, visit www.ALZinfo.org.
A. S. Buchman, R. S. Wilson, J. L. Bienias, et al: "Change in body mass index and risk of incident Alzheimer's disease." Neurology, September 27, 2005, Volume 65: pages 892-897.
September 27, 2006