Researchers seek overweight, elderly adults for study

Obese elderly people can improve physical function and lessen frailty by losing weight and exercising, according to a pilot study by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“We have known for a long time that exercise and weight loss can lower the risk of obesity-related problems in younger people, but until now there were not studies to determine if it has the same protective effects in older obese people,” says principal investigator Dennis Villareal, M.D., assistant professor of medicine. “This preliminary study shows that exercise and weight loss seem to provide these benefits, but we need to replicate these findings in a larger study.”

Villareal reported the results of the pilot study at the annual meeting of the American Geriatrics Society in Orlando, Fla. He followed 27 people whose average age was 70. They also were at least 40 pounds overweight. Participants were randomly assigned to either continue their current lifestyle or were placed into a group where they received six months of behavior therapy for weight loss, in conjunction with flexibility, aerobic and resistance-training exercises three times per week.

After six months, members of the diet-and-exercise group had less body fat and were stronger than the non-exercisers. They also fared better on endurance tests and rated themselves higher on quality-of-life and physical-capability studies.

Villareal now hopes to replicate these findings over a longer time in a larger group. His team is recruiting people ages 65-80 who are at least 40 pounds overweight. Volunteers cannot have diabetes or heart disease.

Volunteers will receive physical exams, blood and urine tests, electrocardiograms and treadmill tests to see if they qualify for the study. They will also fill out questionnaires about quality of life, physical capabilities and limitations as well as cognitive function.

Those who qualify will receive a further round of tests, including an X-ray screening that helps determine total body fat; magnetic resonance imaging to measure fat in the abdomen, thighs and liver; and tests to measure flexibility, strength, balance and exercise endurance.

Qualified participants will be divided into four groups. The groups will either continue with their normal lifestyle, go on a weight-loss diet, start a supervised exercise program or begin a diet-and-exercise program.

All subjects will receive medical screenings and assessments at the start of the study, after six months and at one year. Medical tests are free for study volunteers. For more information, call study coordinator Nicole Wright at (314) 362-2394.