Above: Many of us are seeing weight gain during the pandemic. Here’s what you need to know!

My 92-year-old friend Bill Roselle, who lives in California, reads my Atlanta Senior Life articles online. He sent an email yesterday and said he wanted to let me know he’s gained 10 pounds since the coronavirus pandemic took hold of Californians (not to mention the September wildfires and unprecedented early fall heat waves).

It’s been a rough year!

I did not write back to discuss my “new” 19 pounds (gained since early March). It wasn’t something I was particularly proud of. But weight gain for older adults during this pandemic isn’t unusual and experts are saying it’s almost inevitable for many of us.

With “increased time spent on the couch, it’s no wonder weight gain has been a common experience,” states an article I spotted in Sharp Health News. The article reminds older adults that maintaining a healthy weight is important to prevent a manage a number of health conditions, such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Those conditions, by the way, are the same ones that place older adults at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications, should we unknowingly have contracted it. Either way, weight gain can be uncomfortable — and, as mentioned, dangerous to our overall health, especially if binge eating is involved.

Becca Eckstein, executive director of Veritas Collaborative’s Adult Hospital in Durham, N.C., wrote in an email that there can be added “hurdles to recovery” for people who gain weight because of inactivity.

“During a time when social distancing is key, a pandemic can create greater feelings of loneliness for an individual needing additional support,” she wrote. “Eating disorders can thrive in isolation and eating disorder symptoms are likely to exacerbate during a time of higher anxiety and stress.” And the 2020 pandemic is stressful.

“Taking care of your mind, body, and soul is more important now than ever,” Eckstein says. “Lastly, finding joy in the small things — whether gratitude for each day of health, reading an enjoyable book (or even joining a virtual book club), or looking forward to the day where hugs are safely in abundance,” she said.

The International Journal of Eating Disorders suggests that “binge eating might also occur simply due to [our] proximity to food, an emotional reaction to the pandemic, or even because of stockpiling food” (in an effort to prepare for self-isolation). In fact, those with a history of eating disorders are “beginning to exhibit worsening symptoms.”

A Few Silver Linings

But there’s good news, too. “One silver lining of this pandemic is there are now more virtual treatment and support options than ever, which is great for people who were previously unable to access in-person treatment,” Chelsea M. Kronengold, communications manager for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), wrote in an email.

“Older adults who struggle with food, body image and exercise issues are experiencing the added challenges of being ‘high risk,’ and are likely taking extra precautions to self-isolate. …Whatever you are feeling right now (e.g., loneliness, anxiety, anger) is valid. Connection and community are key during this unprecedented time.”

man on couch with computer
Photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels

Many grandparents have taken this time to get more comfortable with using video platforms such as Zoom or FaceTime to remain connected to family members and close friends, and video technology seems poised to take on a new cultural significance, some experts say. In a 2018 study, researchers found that the use of video chatting has actually helped to reduce the risk of depression in people aged 60 and older, a group that is more likely to be socially isolated than its younger counterparts.

Another study, conducted by researchers in Oregon and published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, found that of four online communication technologies — video chat, email, social networks and instant messaging — using video chat to connect with friends and family appeared to hold the most promise in staving off depression among seniors.

However, all those video chats will not keep older adults (or younger ones) away from the late-night snacks and refrigerator tours.

Aging Adjustments

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that as we age, our “body composition gradually shifts — the proportion of muscle decreases and the proportion of fat increases. This shift slows our metabolism, making it all the easier to gain weight.” In addition, we may become less physically active while we age, increasing our odds for weight gain.

Clinical psychologist Karen Samuels is an expert in the field of eating disorders. For more than 30 years, she’s been a workshop leader and keynote presenter. Samuels has published extensively on a number of issues related to treatment of eating disorders across our lifespan.

Samuels gives special attention to women at midlife and beyond. “Eating disorders do not discriminate,” she said. They seem to thrive in isolation and can reactivate (at times) in mid-life (especially for women). Samuels tells her readers, it’s OK to let our bodies change.

Not everyone, however, is gaining weight. Along with binge eating are bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Both can add to significant weight loss and even life-threatening conditions: “Anorexia has the second-highest mortality rate of any psychiatric diagnosis — outranked by only by opioid use disorder,” according to The Eating Disorder Foundation’s fact sheet.

One survey in July found 62% of people in the U.S. with anorexia seemed to get worse when the coronavirus hit. The more common binge-eating has already reported an increase for the year in helpline calls.

Bulimia and anorexia were often thought of as problems facing young people, but many experts say women (and some men) who struggled with eating disorders as teens and young adults appear to renew those old habits during a late-in-life crisis. In fact, “Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice,” states the National Institutes of Health, “they are biologically-influenced medical illnesses.”

People struggling with anorexia nervosa will avoid food and severely restrict food intake by eating minute amounts. They can become dangerously underweight, suggest the experts. Those with bulimia nervosa eat large amounts of food followed by forced vomiting, excessive use of diuretics, fasting, laxatives and (in some cases) excessive exercise.

Eating disorders can affect anyone at any time, regardless of age, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexuality or cultural background, according to Medical News Today. According to other experts, triggers can include menopause, natural changes connected to aging, retirement, feeling a need to compete with younger people, an empty nest, becoming a grandparent and divorce, among others.

Remember, NEDA, at nationaleatingdisorders.org, and other organizations offer help at any age.

Judi Kanne

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.