Aging and Imaging Assessment of Body Composition: From Fat to Facts

Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2020 Jan 14;10:861. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2019.00861. eCollection 2019.


The aging process is characterized by the chronic inflammatory status called "inflammaging", which shares major molecular and cellular features with the metabolism-induced inflammation called "metaflammation." Metaflammation is mainly driven by overnutrition and nutrient excess, but other contributing factors are metabolic modifications related to the specific body composition (BC) changes occurring with age. The aging process is indeed characterized by an increase in body total fat mass and a concomitant decrease in lean mass and bone density, that are independent from general and physiological fluctuations in weight and body mass index (BMI). Body adiposity is also re-distributed with age, resulting in a general increase in trunk fat (mainly abdominal fat) and a reduction in appendicular fat (mainly subcutaneous fat). Moreover, the accumulation of fat infiltration in organs such as liver and muscles also increases in elderly, while subcutaneous fat mass tends to decrease. These specific variations in BC are considered risk factors for the major age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, sarcopenia and osteoporosis, and can predispose to disabilities. Thus, the maintenance of a balance rate of fat, muscle and bone is crucial to preserve metabolic homeostasis and a health status, positively contributing to a successful aging. For this reason, a detailed assessment of BC in elderly is critical and could be an additional preventive personalized strategy for age-related diseases. Despite BMI and other clinical measures, such as waist circumference measurement, waist-hip ratio, underwater weighing and bioelectrical impedance, are widely used as a surrogate measure for body adiposity, they barely reflect the distribution of body fat. Because of the great advantages offered by imaging tools in research and clinics, the attention of clinicians is now moving to powerful imaging techniques such as computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry and ultrasound to obtain a more accurate estimation of BC. The aim of this review is to present the state of the art of the imaging techniques that are currently available to measure BC and that can be applied to the study of BC changes in the elderly, outlining advantages and disadvantages of each technique.

Keywords: age-related diseases; aging; body composition; fat and lean mass; imaging techniques.

Publication types

  • Review