A recent study published in the British Medical Journal conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) researchers suggests women who are overweight (have adiposity) in mid-life have increased risk for major chronic diseases after the age of 70. Conversely, the study also demonstrates that women who are lean in mid-life are more likely to be healthy after 70.
In the United States we are waging a war against the obesity epidemic and this study provides further evidence for the need to slim down for current and future health benefits even if at mid-age we have no desire to sport a bikini. This is the first study to show that the weight we carry in our middle years will have an impact on our future health and fitness.
Data for the research study was obtained from the Nurses’ Health Study which began with a cohort of women with a mean age of 50 in 1976. Data was collected from 17,000 participants. 10 percent of the women in the study who lived beyond the age of 70 reported being free of the 11 chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. As the Body Mass Index (BMI) increased in the mid-age group their likelihood of being in the group free of chronic diseases deceased. Obese women were nearly 80 percent less likely to remain healthy as compared to lean women.
Also of note the study shows that the more weight gained from age 18 until mid-life (50 years), the less likely a woman was to enjoy a healthy survival after the age of 70. Researchers conclude that it is important to maintain a health weight from early adulthood to enjoy a healthy life in older ages.
The study controlled for smoking, diet, and socioeconomic status. Researchers concede that the majority of participants were white, working women so results should not be expanded to black, Hispanic or Asian women.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary some researchers are concerned that the focus on BMI, a 19th century measure of body measurement based on a white European population, is putting the focus of health living in the wrong place. In the last 6 months, the research journal, Obesity has published two studies showing that obese people do not have shortened life spans as compared to normal BMI sized people. An 11 year Japanese study concluded that underweight people were at a greater risk of death than overweight or obese people. A Canadian study with 11,000 participants showed that only the very obese were at increased risk of death. Proponents citing these studies believe that it is a lack of exercise and not merely extra pounds that lead to chronic and life threatening diseases. They suggest that public health professionals should be encouraging people to eat healthy and engage in physical activity for health benefits only, but not to have weight loss as a goal.
It is probably best to take heart in all the studies and eat healthy, exercise and try to maintain a stable weight from young adulthood to old age. If you are a women somewhere between the ages of 18 and 70 take an assessment of your weight, your lifestyle (sedentary or active) and consult with your physician about making any changes that will increase your chances to live disease free well into your older years.