Just a Few Extra Pounds Could Mean Fewer Years, Study Finds

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Bad news for all those baby boomers starting to pile on the pounds as they go through middle age: You don't have to be obese -- just a little overweight -- to increase your risk of dying prematurely, according to a large government study.

The 10-year study of more than 500,000 U.S. adults found that those who were just moderately overweight in their fifties were 20 percent to 40 percent more likely to die in the next decade. Another study involving more than 1 million Korean adults, also being published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine, produced similar results.

The studies, both released yesterday, were aimed at helping resolve a long debate over whether the millions of Americans who are not obese but are nevertheless considered overweight are at significant risk.

"These findings are very important," said Michael F. Leitzmann of the National Cancer Institute, which led the U.S. study. "A substantial proportion of the population in the U.S. is overweight. So if overweight is related to premature death, that's very important to public health."

The findings are particularly relevant to the large number of baby boomers who are going through that critical period of middle age when people typically gain weight.

"What we need to do is try to encourage people to maintain a healthy weight and avoid weight gain," Leitzmann said.

The findings were welcomed by public health and obesity experts as powerful new evidence that people should do whatever they can to maintain a healthy weight.

"The take-home message is that if you are not obese but just overweight, it's still a good idea to lose weight," said Thomas A. Wadden, president of the Obesity Society. "It's kind of a bummer, but maybe this will help motivate people that it's time to do something about their weight."

Skeptics, however, remain unconvinced, saying the analysis is flawed and will alarm people unnecessarily.

"I think they are just adding to the obesity hysteria," said Glenn A. Gaesser of the University of Virginia. "They are presenting the data in a way that paints overweight and obesity in the worst possible light. It's not as bad as they make it seem."

The number of Americans who are overweight has been increasing steadily in the United States. About two-thirds of Americans are now overweight, including about a third who are obese. Anyone with a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight, whereas a BMI of 30 or above is considered obese. (A 5-foot-10-inch adult who weighs between 174 and 208 pounds is considered overweight; above that is considered obese.)

Studies clearly show that obesity increases the risk for a host of ailments -- including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and arthritis -- and that obese people are more likely to die prematurely.

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