Obesity a weighty challenge for older Australians too

Older Australians have not escaped the obesity epidemic that is sweeping Australia and the world, according to a new study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Obesity Trends in Older Australians is the first national obesity study to focus on older Australians rather than adults generally. Looking at age groups from 55 onwards, it shows that older men and women are 6-7 kg heavier on average than their counterparts 20 years ago-the equivalent of 12-14 medium-sized tubs of margarine.

There has also been a trebling in 20 years of those older Australians who are obese (markedly overweight), from 310,000 in 1980 to 940,000 in 2000. This is more than one in five of Australia's older people, with one-third of the increase in number being the result of an ageing population and two-thirds due to an increase in obesity rates.

Report author Dr Stan Bennett said a surprising finding in the report was that Australians in their 50s are continuing to gain weight as they gain years, at least into their mid-70s.

'The effect of this obesity epidemic has far exceeded any natural tendency that may exist for older Australians to lose weight as they age.

''The waist circumference of older Australians has also increased-abdominal obesity is common among those in their early 50s, but it becomes even more common among older age groups.'

Dr Bennett emphasised that obesity carries clear health risks at all ages, and age itself carries some well-known health risks.

'The growing number of obese older Australians comprise a group who are now especially at risk from chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, some cancers, osteoarthritis and kidney disease. As well, obesity can affect their independence in performing their daily living tasks, their mobility, their social lives and their mental health.'

'With the number of obese older Australians now approaching 1 million, there are clearly plenty of challenges here for productive and healthy ageing, as well as implications for health and aged care services, and for carers and their wellbeing.

'Health Ministers have asked the National Obesity Taskforce to advise on strategies to reduce obesity in adults and older Australians. The Taskforce's recommendations will be very important as more of the baby boomer generation move into their 50s and beyond'.

12 February 2004


Further information: Dr Stan Bennett, AIHW, tel. 02 6244 1141, or 0407 915 851 (mobile)
For media copies of the reports: Publications Officer, AIHW, tel. 02 6244 1032