Diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol are likely in the future for most women, according to a new study. But that doesn’t mean that you have to accept the inevitable.
The study, published Wednesday in the Lancet, focused on the question of whether a person can be obese but remain healthy long term (the results weren’t good), but it also turned up another finding.
After researchers followed a group of 90,000 American women for up to 30 years, they found that most people – including those who began the study at a normal body weight – eventually developed diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol. This was true whether or not they were overweight to begin with.
Two-thirds of women classified as having a “healthy” body weight at their initial examination ended up with one of those three metabolic diseases.
This is in line with Canadian numbers. According to Statistics Canada, 53 per cent of Canadians aged 60 to 79 reported that they had been diagnosed with hypertension. Also, 23 per cent of women aged 70 to 74 were diagnosed with diabetes in 2013-2014.
Partly, it’s about getting older. For many of these diseases, your risk increases with age, said Dr. Arya Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network.
“Even if people start out with pretty good body composition, low body fat, as they get older, you tend to lose some of your muscle and you tend to put on more fat. So your body becomes fatter even without the numbers on the scale actually changing,” he said.
But it’s not just due to aging, said study co-author Matthias Schulze, of the German Institute of Human Nutrition. “There is an increasing risk for these diseases with age, but age is only one of multiple risk factors for these metabolic diseases.”
Some of these other risk factors include excess weight, genetics, a lack of exercise, poor sleep and poor stress management, Sharma said.
Some of these can be changed. “It’s not inevitable. Of course, if you come from a genetic background of diabetes, everyone in your family has diabetes, everyone in your family gets heart disease, then you’re certainly fighting an upward battle.”
“But it’s not impossible. And of course, if you don’t fight, then you’re just going to get the same problems that everyone else in your family has.”
To Susanne Clee, a diabetes researcher and assistant professor in the department of cellular and physiological sciences at the University of British Columbia, one of the takeaways is that people need to work harder to maintain metabolic health.
“Even if you’re young and healthy doesn’t mean you’ll stay that way forever,” she said.
“I wouldn’t say inevitable but it probably takes a lot more effort than most of us put in.”
Sharma said there is nothing better than regular exercise: even the government-recommended guidelines of at least 2.5 hours per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity will help. Eating a higher-quality diet will also help to reduce your risk of metabolic disease, as will getting better sleep and reducing your stress.
Even just delaying the onset of metabolic diseases like diabetes by a few years can make a big difference to your health, he said. “It has a huge benefit because diabetes causes problems over a 10- to 20-year period. So if you delay that by five or six years, you can have a very substantial health benefit.”