Obesity puts you at risk for a variety of life-altering or life-threatening conditions and diseases. These include cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, decreased cognition and a weak immune system. These are all common “side effects” of aging, too. Is obesity just accelerated or premature aging?
Some researchers say yes. They believe the propensity of obesity to increase the likelihood of a variety of metabolic diseases and conditions common among older people means obesity should be considered premature aging.
Obesity is widespread across the planet, with an estimated 1.9 billion adults and 380 million children considered overweight or obese. According to the CDC, 42.4% of American adults and 18.5% of children aged 2 to 19 were considered obese in 2018. The World Health Organization claims that more people around the world are dying from being overweight than from being underweight.
In other words, feast is killing more people than famine.
Researchers from Concordia University have just published a paper in the journal Obesity Reviews staking their claim that obesity should be considered premature aging. While it may seem like an outlandish claim for serious science types to make, they may be right, or close to right.
Sylvia Santosa is associate professor of health, kinesiology and applied physiology at Concordia. She led the study in which she and her team reviewed more than 200 papers that assessed the effects of obesity. The effects studies ranged from the cellular level to the body-wide, systemic level.
“We are trying to comprehensively make the argument that obesity parallels aging,” explains Santosa, a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Clinical Nutrition. “Indeed, the mechanisms by which the comorbidities of obesity and aging develop are very similar.”
Systems matter and so do cells
There is a massive and growing body of research and literature that describes the link between obesity and premature death. What hasn’t been coordinated and assessed is whether and how obesity works at even the lowest level of the human body to accelerate the mechanisms of aging.
The Concordia team looked, for example, at apoptosis, the process of cell death, and autophagy, the maintenance of healthy cells. These are both associated with, and affected by the aging process.
We know from previous studies that obesity inhibits autophagy. This can lead to type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Studies have also shown that obesity-induced apoptosis in mice occurs in the heart, liver, neurons, kidneys, retina and inner ears.
Obesity even reaches down to the genetic level, causing a variety of changes linked to aging. One critical example is the shortening of telomeres. Telomeres are protective structures at the ends of chromosomes. In obese patients, telomeres may be more than 25 percent shorter than those seen in people of healthy weight.
Santosa and her colleagues further point out that obesity’s effects on cognitive decline, mobility, hypertension and stress are all similar to those of aging.
On a larger scale, obesity negatively influences the body’s fight against age-related disease. It seems to accelerate the aging and breakdown of the immune system by damaging various immune cells. Even if weight loss occurs later, the process may not be reversed.
This attack on the immune system leaves the body susceptible to diseases like the common cold and the flu (yes, COVID-19 coronavirus, too.) Obese people often get these diseases at a higher rate than healthy weight individuals. Another possible outcome is sarcopenia. This is a disease which leads to progressive loss of strength and muscle mass and is usually associated with aging.
They also lay out how obesity increases the likelihood of type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and some cancers. These are usually considered late-life onset diseases, but obesity can make them start earlier, so the researchers claim.
Obvious and striking similarities
Santosa grew concerned and realized the need for this study when she noted the increasing number of children who were developing conditions normally associated with adulthood, like high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and hypertension. It struck her that the comorbidities of obesity resembled those of aging.
“I ask people to list as many comorbidities of obesity as they can,” Santosa says. “Then I ask how many of those comorbidities are associated with aging. Most people will say, all of them. There is certainly something that is happening in obesity that is accelerating our aging process.'”
It’s Santosa’s belief that her research will allow people to better understand how obesity works and will move people to find new ideas for treating it.
“I’m hoping that these observations will focus our approach to understanding obesity a little more, and at the same time allow us to think of obesity in different ways. We’re asking different types of questions than that which have traditionally been asked.”
This research offers a fresh perspective on obesity, to be certain. It should also spur more overweight and obese people to consider their condition as somewhat more urgent in nature.
After all, who wants to be old before they’re old?
Keep the faith and keep after it!
Journal Reference – Bjorn T. Tam, Jose A. Morais, Sylvia Santosa. Obesity and ageing: Two sides of the same coin. Obesity Reviews, 2020; DOI: 10.1111/obr.12991