If you’re carrying a few extra pounds in your 50s but you manage not to gain any more as time goes by, you may live longer than normal-weight people your age. A nationwide study done at The Ohio State University and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that people who were slightly overweight at 50+ but kept their weight relatively stable were the most likely to survive over the next 16 years. They had better survival rates even than people in the healthy weight range whose weight increased slightly but stayed within the normal range.
On the other hand, those who started out as very obese in their 50s and whose weight continued to increase were the most likely to die during that period. Overall, the results suggest that about 7.2 percent of deaths after the age of 51 are due to weight gain among obese people, at least among the generation in this study, according to lead author Hui Zheng.
A release from the university quotes Zheng as saying, "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."
Why is being slightly overweight protective for older people? "It is probably because the older population is more likely to get illnesses and disease, especially cancer, that cause dangerous weight loss," Zheng said. "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."
However, Zheng cautioned that these results applied only to people over 50. His previous research, published in Social Science & Medicine, suggests that being overweight may not be helpful for younger people. Younger people are less likely to get many of the diseases that afflict older adults, which is one reason extra weight is not good for them, he said.
"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.
The researchers used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of Americans born between 1931 and 1941. This study analyzed 9,538 respondents who were aged 51 to 61 when the survey began in 1992. They were re-interviewed every two years until 2008, and the researchers had information on how their body mass index (BMI) changed at each interview and whether they died at any point before December 2009.
Zheng emphasized that the main message for everyone, including older adults, is that packing on the pounds, especially if you're obese, can be hazardous to your health. "Continuing to put on weight can lower your life expectancy," he said.