Dieting to lose weight may not help older overweight adults live any longer, suggests a new study.
But dropping a few pounds on purpose also does not seem to cause any harm to the elderly -- which had been a concern raised by previous studies, researchers wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
"There is a general sense in geriatrics...that weight-loss is a bad thing," said study author Stephen Kritchevsky, from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Improvements in diet and weight loss in the overweight and obese are linked to blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes benefits, including in the elderly.
Still, "there's been a little bit of a conundrum on whether it's a wise thing or not to ask an overweight older adult to lose weight."
That's because some research has linked weight loss in older adults with a higher rate of death -- probably because unintentional weight loss in the elderly is often due to an underlying illness, Kritchevsky added.
While the new findings don't show that dropping weight can extend an older adult's life, "if an older person is overweight or obese and has weight-related health conditions, they should not be concerned that losing weight would be bad for them," he concluded.
Kritchevsky and his colleagues looked back on data from a past study of overweight and obese adults with high blood pressure, some of whom had received training and counseling to help them lose weight and keep it off.
Participants in the weight-loss group had dropped an average of close to 10 pounds, while those in the other groups -- who were assigned to tweak the amount of salt in their diets or to not change their diets at all -- lost about 2 pounds.
Twelve years later, the researchers used national death records to figure out which of the original participants were still alive. By then, they would have been in their late 70s, on average.
Out of about 600 people split between the weight-loss and non-weight-loss programs, about 50 died in each group. When Kritchevsky's team took into account factors such as age, race and smoking, participants assigned to lose weight weren't any more or less likely to die during the follow-up than those not in the weight-loss group.
When analyzed separately from women, men from the weight-loss assignment group did seem to have a lower risk of death that those who hadn't tried to drop any extra pounds. But the researchers weren't sure why that was the case and cautioned it would have to be tested again in a larger study.
For now, Kritchevsky called the findings "a reassuring message that weight loss is potentially beneficial regardless of your age, if you're overweight or obese."
And even if losing weight might not add a lot of years to an elderly person's life, it can have many other health benefits, he added -- from easing disease risks to making activities like walking up the stairs easier and reducing osteoarthritis pain.