Senior Health :

More Thigh Fat, Less Muscle Leads to Loss of Mobility

Richard Craver

Walking may not be enough on its own to keep older adults on pace for good health.

Trimming the fat off their thighs, through exercise and diet, is also an important factor, according to researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Their study found an increase in fat throughout the thigh is likely to contribute to mobility loss in otherwise healthy older adults. The study has been published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Kristen Beavers, the study's lead author, said it's natural that people's walking speed declines with age.

However in older adults, a significant decrease in walking speed can be a predictor of disability, which can lead to a loss of independence and the ability to live in their home.

"As people age, they are more likely to gain fat in and around their muscles," Beavers said. "We speculated that gaining fat in the leg muscle itself would be related to a slowed walking speed."

Thigh fat, according to several studies, can be hereditary. It also is associated with consuming too much sugar, alcohol, trans-fats and carbohydrates. Women can be susceptible to thigh fat, as well as in the hips and buttocks, as part of how their bodies prepare for child bearing.

By comparison, men gain fat around their midsection, which tends to contribute to a higher risk of heart disease than in women.

The researchers used data from the National Institute on Aging's Health, Aging and Body Composition study.

The walking ability of 2,306 men and women between ages 70 and 79 was reviewed annually over four years. The participants' walking speed was assessed by how long it took them to complete a 20-meter walk.

Researches looked at how changes in fat and lean mass affected walking speed. They focused on whether changes in thigh intermuscular fat or thigh muscle area were more predictive of slowed walking speed.

Older adults who gained the most thigh fat and lost the most thigh muscle were at greatest risk of experiencing a meaningful decline in walking speed, Beavers said.

"As the burden of disability becomes increasingly common and expensive, identification of modifiable contributors to functional decline in older adults is emerging as a significant priority of public-health research," Beavers said.

Beavers said the next goal of researchers is determining the most effective methods for reducing thigh intermuscular fat and toning thigh muscles in the elderly.

Regular exercise, particularly walking or swimming, is recommended for the elderly to help tone their thighs. However, Beavers cautioned that just losing weight may not be enough to improve agility.

Beavers, and her husband, Daniel, released in January a report that determined that avoiding weight rebound can be particularly pivotal to women who are in the postmenopausal stage of life.

They found that gaining back just a few pounds after an intentional effort to lose weight can be detrimental to these women's cardiovascular health. Their research appeared online in the Journal of Gerontology.

The Beavers looked specifically at cardiometabolic (CM) risk factors -- indicators of a person's overall risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They include blood pressure, HDL and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting glucose and insulin.

"What we found was that all CM risk factors are improved with weight loss, which is not surprising, but most regressed back to their baseline values 12 months later, especially for women who were classified as regainers," Kristen Beavers said. "For women who had regained weight in the year after their weight loss, several risk factors were actually worse than before they lost the weight."

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