Let’s be clear — carrying too much weight is not good no matter how we try to dress it up. It makes it harder to walk up stairs and fit into nice clothes and it forces your heart and every other organ to work overtime.

But it seems being fat is not all bad. In fact sometimes it’s even good for you.

However, before you tuck into that family block of fruit and nut chocolate or head to the nearest drive-through for a lunchtime mega-burger, check your age.

If you’re old enough to qualify for the pension and free flu shot, keep reading.

A new study hailing from WA has found that fat actually protects older men from dementia.

Results from the decade-long University of WA study, recently published in an international medical journal, suggest overweight older men are less likely to lose their memory and thinking skills.

The study tracked more than 12,000 men aged between 65 and 84 over 10 years.

It found that men with a body mass index in the overweight category and with high levels of fat deposits around their waist were less likely to develop dementia compared to men of normal weight.

Winthrop Professor Osvaldo Almeida, UWA’s chair of old age psychiatry and research director at the WA Centre for Health and Ageing, concedes there is some controversy about whether obesity guidelines developed for adults should be applied to the elderly.

“It is well established that obesity is a contributing factor for many lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which in turn increases the risk of death in middle age, ” he says.

“However, the same may not be true for older men.”

Professor Almeida goes on to say that recent research shows that being classified as overweight in old age reduces your chance of dying from cancer, a heart attack, a stroke and other diseases associated with old age.

“Our findings add further weight to the argument for the need to review the BMI for the elderly, ” he advises.

Professor Almeida says so-called healthy rates of BMI, waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio might need “recalibration” in older age.

He says his study is the largest and longest survey of old men and dementia. But the jury is still out on whether the findings also apply to older women.

It’s not the first time questions have been raised about how we measure “being fat” and how we determine when it becomes a real risk to our health.

In recent years doubts have been cast over the use of BMI, long used by the World Health Organisation to measure weight against height.

Many health experts now believe that weight aside, the size of our waistline could be the real determiner of the risk of common killer diseases.

This is because the visceral or intra-abdominal fat which people carry is the most dangerous, coating major organs such as the heart and forcing them to work overtime.

According to health authorities, a man’s waist should be no more than 94cm while a woman’s waist should be no more than 80cm to stay safe.

Men are considered at serious risk of chronic diseases if they have a waistline more than 102cm. For women, it is more than 88cm.

The drawback of using BMI, according to experts, is that it’s only an indication of health that doesn’t necessarily reflect how body fat is distributed.

They argue that no matter what a person’s build or height, the waistline is a more accurate indicator of serious health risks.

Asking people to use a simple tape measure reading, rather than relying on calculating BMI which some people find daunting, is also an easier health message to sell.

But what about the argument that muscled athletes can sometimes be bigger than their couch-potato friends — in weight and even waist size — and fall into “fat” categories whether they apply BMI or waist circumference.

And are “big-boned” people a myth or is it possible some people’s “insides” below the layer of fat are heavier than others? Can you really have a heavy heart?

Concern about childhood obesity is simply a no-brainer because 10-year-olds have to keep their bodies in good shape for another 70 or 80 years. And people in middle age and in retirement also want to do what they can to stay well.

But maybe the rules could relax a bit in the years beyond that.

A Perth doctor once relayed the story of a frail female patient in her mid-80s who sat down every afternoon at 5pm to eat her favourite snack, a well-known chocolate bar, cut into four pieces, while she watched a game show. She asked him one day if it was OK eating the same chocolate every day without fail.

He duly chastised her for not having a bit more variety in her diet. She should at least swap to a different chocolate bar every now and then, he told her.

For the rest of us, perhaps the telltale measurement of whether you’ve piled on a few too many kilos is as close as your wardrobe.

If your clothes feel a tad tight, requiring a quick intake of breath to pull up the zipper or secure the last button, the news isn’t good.

On the other hand, if the skirt or trousers that used to fit snugly around your waist a year ago are now more like hip-huggers, keep doing whatever you’re doing.

And look forward to the golden years.

© The West Australian

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