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A few extra pounds in our 50s could help us live longer

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Overweight in older adults could extend lifespan. As long as the scales don't creep up.

If you are over age 50 and have a few extra pounds, you could be doing your body good, suggests a new study. That is of course, as long as you don’t keep gaining weight.

Weight gain riskier than overweight for older adults

Researchers at Ohio State University say it’s when we continue to gain weight that our health risks escalate.

The news is good for everyone, considering that middle-age spread seems inevitable. Taking off weight is, for some, an insurmountable task. In fact, stressing about being overweight carries its own health risks.

But before we all get too excited, there is a caveat: If we don’t stay where we are, with just a few extra pounds, it could mean a shorter lifespan.

What the researchers found in a nationwide study is that people who were slightly overweight in their 50’s and stayed that way were more likely to survive over the next 16 years.

The survival rate was compared to people whose weight was normal but who had put on just a few extra pounds during the study period.

People who were severely obese in their 50’s and continued to gain weight were more likely to die, the study found.

Hui Zheng, lead author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at The Ohio State University said in a press release: “You can learn more about older people’s mortality risk by looking at how their weight is changing than you can by just looking at how much they weigh at any one time.”

A note of caution

Zhen cautions the finding only applies to people in their 50’s.Being overweight doesn’t seem to have the same protective effect for people who are younger.

“Our other research suggests that the negative effect of obesity on health is greater for young people than it is for older people, so young people especially shouldn’t think that being overweight is harmless,” he said.

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The study, published this month in the American Journal of Epidemiology online is the result of data taken from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of Americans born between 1931 and 1941

The investigation included 9,538 respondents who were aged 51 to 61at the survey start in 1992.

Zheng and colleagues observed changes in body mass index (BMI) over 16 years during interviews and then matched weight changes with deaths that occurred any time before December, 2009.

Those whose BMI was slightly high - 25 to 29.9 – and stayed that way had the highest survival rate, followed by those who moved to obese with BMI 30 to 34.9.

The highest risk of dying was seen among people whose BMI was normal and who lost weight, potentially because of illness.

“We can’t really evaluate the effectiveness of planned weight loss on mortality. Even in the normal-weight people in this study, there was no way to tell whether weight loss was planned,” Zheng said.

Obese individuals had the lowest survival rate compared among six different groups studied.

Why does being overweight help older people?

Zheng explains a little extra weigh in our 50’s’s probably helps our bodies because we’re better prepared when we do face illnesses that could be chronic, deplete the body of nutrition and energy and cause muscle wasting.

The main message for everyone, he says, is that we should try to avoid further weigh gain, especially if you are already battling obesity.

Not mentioned in the study but worth noting is that older obese adults might lower their risk factors for disease by setting a reasonable weight loss goal - one that is attainable – such as getting back to being slightly overweight.

Because the study did not address the benefits of planned weight loss, please follow your doctor’s advice. For some older adults, taking off a few pounds can mean fewer or no blood pressure medicines, lower cholesterol and risk of future diabetes and less joint pain.

The study only highlights the fact that continuing to put on weight shortens our life expectancy. The good news is, if you’re a bit overweight and older, you could live a long and healthy life by focusing on a weight maintenance program.

Am. J. Epidemiol. (2013 )doi: 10.1093/aje/kwt179
“Obesity and Mortality Risk: New Findings From Body Mass Index Trajectories”
Hui Zheng, et al.