The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate that more than half the adult population of the United States is overweight [defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 30]. A significant number of these people are obese (defined as a BMI greater than 30). The obesity epidemic is even beginning to affect children, whose obesity rates have doubled in the past two decades (NIH 2005). And instead of declining, obesity rates are rising, along with the frequency of conditions that are closely associated with obesity, such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
The government's answer to the growing epidemic of obesity has been to recommend more exercise and a balanced diet. While there is no doubt these strategies are important, they also display an incomplete understanding of the biological and hormonal changes that underlie obesity among aging adults. The fact is that as we age, we undergo physiological changes that encourage weight gain. These include hormonal changes and alterations in the way our bodies process nutrients.
Recent advances in dietary science have highlighted the crucial role of insulin in weight gain. Produced in the pancreas, insulin is a critical hormone for the control of blood sugar (glucose). Its job is to transport glucose into cells, where the glucose is burned as fuel. While this process is necessary for life, abnormalities in the insulin-glucose system caused by aging, lack of exercise and poor diet can cause major health problems. In aging, cells become more resistant to the effects of insulin. As cells become increasingly insulin resistant, the body compensates by increasing the number of insulin receptors on cells and secreting more insulin in an attempt to drive more blood sugar into muscle and liver cells (Fulop 2003).
Insulin resistance is a dangerous condition. Research suggests that adipose tissue (fat) is a source of pro-inflammatory chemicals that have a role in the development of insulin resistance (Sharma AM et al 2005). Insulin resistance is associated with obesity (in particular, abdominal obesity) (Greenfield JR et al. 2004). It is also associated with aging muscle (Nair KS 2005), physical inactivity, and genetics.
This increase in insulin (called hyperinsulinemia) and decreased insulin sensitivity have a number of harmful effects, including contributing to diseases associated with being overweight (Zeman et al 2005; Garveyet al 1998)
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