Obesity should be classed as a form of premature ageing, due to it predisposing people to acquiring life-altering diseases normally seen in older individuals.
Authors of a study called Obesity and ageing: Two sides of the same coin – by the Concordia University in Canada, reviewed more than 200 papers relating to obesity’s effects on human health.
Using the data from the papers, they looked at the ways obesity ages the body from a number of different perspectives – from the immune system to shifts in tissue and body composition.
The study was led by Sylvia Santosa, associate professor of health, kinesiology and applied physiology in the Concordia University’s Faculty of Arts and Science.
Santosa and her colleagues looked at the processes of cell death and the maintenance of healthy cells – apoptosis and autophagy, respectively – that are usually associated with ageing.
At the genetic level, the researchers found that obesity influences a number of alterations associated with ageing. These include the shortening of telomeres – the protective caps found on the ends of chromosomes.
The effect of obesity
Telomeres in patients with obesity can be more than 25 per cent shorter than those seen in control patients.
The study also suggests that obesity’s effects on cognitive decline, mobility, hypertension and stress are all similar to those of ageing.
“The mechanisms by which the comorbidities of obesity and ageing develop are very similar,” Santosa said.
Researchers concluded that obesity speeds up the ageing of the immune system by targeting different immune cells, and that later weight reduction will not always reverse the process. The effects of obesity on the immune system, in turn, affect susceptibility to diseases like influenza, which can affect patients with obesity at a higher rate than normal-weight individuals.
Obese people are also at higher risk of sarcopenia, a disease associated with ageing, which features a progressive decline in muscle mass and strength.
Individuals with obesity are also more susceptible to diseases associated with later-life onset, such as type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and various forms of cancer.
Santosa urges health authorities to rethink their approach to obesity, saying: “I’m hoping these observations will focus our approach to understanding obesity better, and allow us to think of it in different ways,” she added.
“We’re asking different types of questions than those which have traditionally been asked,” she concluded.
Obesity and ageing: two sides of the same coin was published in the Obesity Review