Seniors: Stay Active for Healthy Metabolism

Since an active lifestyle is an essential ingredient in the recipe for life-long health, it comes as no surprise that active seniors have better metabolism than those that are sedentary. A new study found that older people are less likely to have the cluster of markers that indicate metabolic syndrome—excess abdominal body fat, poor blood sugar control, high triglyceride levels, and low HDL (”good”) cholesterol levels—as well as better insulin sensitivity when they maintain an active life.

Identifying metabolic syndrome in seniors

The study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine, included 1,144 people from northern Italy, age 65 to 91 years. They received scores based on answers to questions about their daily activities, including household activities such as cleaning, gardening, and home repairs, and recreational activities, such as walking, jogging, cycling, working out in a gym, dancing, and swimming.

Blood test results and weight, height, and blood pressure measurements were used to identify people with metabolic syndrome, defined as three of the following five features: high waist circumference, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, and low HDL cholesterol levels.

Approximately 40% of the people in the study had metabolic syndrome, slightly lower than the estimated 42 to 43% prevalence seen in people of this age in the US. People without metabolic syndrome had higher physical activity scores, mostly due to more recreational activities. People who were physically active both at home and recreationally had smaller waist circumferences, lower triglyceride levels, and less insulin resistance. Participation in recreational activities was further linked to lower blood sugar levels and higher levels of protective HDL cholesterol.

The insulin connection

Scientists believe that the individual components of metabolic syndrome are likely to have a single cause: insulin resistance. In people with insulin resistance, insulin’s signal that blood sugar levels are high is not heard by the cells. This disruption in a critical feedback mechanism results in chronically elevated insulin levels (and sometimes high blood glucose levels), which then contribute to increased fat deposition in the abdomen, increased production of triglycerides, negative changes in blood lipids, and atherosclerosis.

“Our study demonstrates that physical activity is inversely associated with insulin resistance and several related risk factors, and that low leisure-time activity is an independent predictor of metabolic syndrome in the elderly,” the study’s authors said in their conclusion. They added that preventing insulin resistance could lead to multiple simultaneous benefits for active seniors, including lower risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Recipe for prevention

Preventing metabolic syndrome requires both an active lifestyle and a healthy diet. Some of the dietary habits that will help people of all ages avoid insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome include:

• Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables

• Making cold-water fish like salmon, herring, and tuna part of your diet once or twice each week

• Avoiding excessive animal fats and hydrogenated oils

• Choosing high-fiber, whole-grain carbs like brown rice, barley, quinoa, and multigrain hot cereals

• Staying away from refined grains, white flour products, and simple sugars, especially high-fructose corn syrup

(Q J Med 2008;101:713–21)

Maureen Williams, ND

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