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Older, overweight? Not really a health issue, UW study says

by Matt Rosenberg July 12th, 2012

Obesity remains a significant health problem. But the next classification down, being overweight, is no worse for older adults than being of average weight, based on more than a dozen indicators. That’s the conclusion of a study that was recently published online by researchers from the University of Washington, Group Health research Institute, and the Puget Sound Veterans Administration Medical Center. The findings are considered significant because previous research has found that while being overweight does not generally decrease longevity for senior citizens, it does worsen their health, day-to-day functionality and quality of life. The new study says, no it doesn’t – not really.

The open access study (full text available free, online) was titled “Comparing Years of Healthy Life, Measured in 16 Ways, for Normal Weight and Overweight Older Adults,” and published in The Journal Of Obesity. The team of five researchers was led by primary author Dr. Paula Diehr of the University of Washington Department of Biostatistics and Department of Health Services.

Diehr’s team used standard thresholds of Body Mass Index (BMI) and as an alternative measure, tri-partate groupings of Waist Circumference (WC) to classify almost 6,000 adults 65 and older as normal weight, overweight, and obese. Then they correlated with their weight status with outcomes on the 16 health indicators yearly for each subject, over a course of seven to 10 years, during a broader long-term research project in which they were enrolled called the Cardiovascular Health Study.

The authors concluded: “Overweight older adults averaged as many years of life and years of healthy life as those of normal weight. There may be no outcome based reason to distinguish normal from overweight for older adults…..The ‘Overweight Paradox,’ meaning the finding of little difference between normal and overweight…seemed to hold for various measures of health status as well as for mortality. Obesity was significantly associated with worse outcomes in about half the comparisons.” The authors added that the results don’t support “recommendations for overweight older adults to lose weight” but do suggest classifications of “normal” and “overweight” BMI may need to be more appropriately named because “overweight” is the new “normal” and especially because health outcomes are parallel.

The results were found to be particularly applicable to white men, and African-American men and women. For white women, the data indicated being overweight was more likely to be associated with poor health based on the 16 indicators.

These included years of life; average daily blocks walked; walking pace; ability to lift, reach and grip; ability to accomplish household tasks and errands; bed days in past two weeks; hospitalizations in previous year; getting a yearly flu shot; yearlyself-rated health; life satisfaction; social support; depression; and stressful life events.

BMI was derived from weight divided by height squared. The standard groupings were used, meaning those with BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 were considered normal weight; BMI 25 to 29.9 was overweight; and BMI 30-plus was obese.

The statistical analysis was adjusted to account for potential confounding factors such as older age, recent weight loss, and smoking history.

RELATED: Body Mass Index (BMI) Calculator, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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