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Surprise: Overweight Folks Live the Longest!

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Surprise: Overweight Folks Live the Longest! about undefined
If you’ve gained a little bit of weight during the coronavirus pandemic then you might be fed up with the constant nagging from medical authorities—or your spouse— to lose the pounds.

You’ll want to keep reading because a new study suggests those extra pounds might actually be good for you. In fact, the research shows that you'll live longer carrying a little extra weight than people of normal weight.

It’s common knowledge that being overweight, especially being obese, increases your risk of health problems like cardiovascular disease and increases your risk of death.

Later in life, however, it's a different story.

Carrying Extra Weight After Middle Age Extends Life

In 2013, Dr. Hui Zheng of Ohio State University and his team studied 9,538 Americans aged 51 to 61 and followed them for 16 years. They put each study participant into six categories depending on how their body mass index (BMI) changed during those years.

Even though the researchers took into account a wide variety of factors that play a role in both weight and mortality, including underlying health problems, they found that people who were overweight (BMI 25 to 29.9) at 51 years of age and remained overweight through age 77 had the lowest mortality risk.

The next longest survival group started out overweight but moved into the obese (BMI 30+) category. "This finding", wrote the researchers, "suggests that in people who are overweight at 51 years of age, small weight gains do not lower the probability of survival."

Those in the normal weight group (BMI 18.5 to 24.9), with their weight trending upwards but remaining in the normal range, lagged behind their longer-lived counterparts, in third place.

The last category, with the lowest rate of survival, were the extremely obese (BMI 35+) folks who continued to put on weight.

Results Confirmed in a Larger Study

In his latest study, published in the Annals of Epidemiology in January, Dr. Zheng and his colleagues used data from the long-running Framingham Heart Study where participants were at least 30 years of age when the study began in 1948.

The researchers looked at 4,576 men and women from the original 1948 group and followed them until 2010. By that time, 3,913 had died. They also included 3,753 of their children who were followed from 1971 to 2014. By then, 967 in that group had died.

Just as in the previous study the researchers looked at six categories of how BMI changed over time and analyzed data in both groups from ages 31 to 80.

In both generations, the researchers found that those of normal weight in early adulthood who gradually moved to become overweight during middle or later adulthood had the lowest mortality risk.

The next most likely to survive group stayed in the normal weight range. In third place were those who were overweight, but whose weight remained stable. This was followed by people at the lower end of normal weight. The least likely to survive were obese people who continued to pile on the pounds.

The main message of the study, said Dr. Zheng, "is that for those who start at a normal weight in early adulthood, gaining a modest amount of weight throughout life and entering the overweight category in later adulthood can actually increase the probability of survival."

Why is This?

Carl J. Lavie, a distinguished cardiologist, scientist and author of The Obesity Paradox, says that "fat tissue is very active in our body and part of our essential tool kit for health and longevity."

For example, Oxford University researchers found that fat stored in the hips and thighs can trap harmful fatty acids and stop them from traveling to the heart.

Other research shows that fat cells also help improve immunity. In the early stages of fat cell development they can gobble up germs and bacteria before they damage the body.

Plus, fat cells produce valuable hormones, which protect us against depression, inflammation, even cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Then, there’s the medical fact that when the body is suffering with a chronic disease it requires more energy than usual, so additional body fat is helpful.

“The older population is more likely to get illnesses and disease, especially cancer, that cause dangerous weight loss,” says Dr. Zheng. "In that case, a small amount of extra weight may provide protection against nutritional and energy deficiencies, metabolic stresses, the development of wasting and frailty, and loss of muscle and bone density caused by chronic diseases.”

Dr. Lavie wants to stress that he’s not encouraging obesity. Instead, he wants people to stop focusing on BMI and start focusing on living a healthy lifestyle.

The key, says Dr. Lavie, is your physical fitness. “If you’re fit it doesn’t matter nearly as much what you weigh.” The worst prognosis, Dr. Lavie says, is actually for thin people who aren’t physically active.

What do I make of these surprising findings? My weight is “normal” -- with three or four more pounds around the middle than I’d like -- and I plan to stay that way, as opposed to piling on more pounds after seeing these studies (and I like to eat, folks, so I don’t say this lightly).

I fear these findings will be misinterpreted and some people will take them as a hint to let themselves go. In my opinion, that would be a bad idea. It’s well known that excess weight correlates with diabetes, heart disease and cancer. I suspect there is a lot more going on below the surface of these new studies, and until we know more, I want to stay thin.

Also don’t forget the extensive research that shows calorie restriction – eating much less than “normal” – is associated with much longer life. As you might expect, it results in being skinny, and it’s one of the most effective life-extenders known, although few people choose to put it into practice because virtual starvation is not a rewarding way to live.

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