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Gaining Weight as You Age Not a Death Sentence, Study Says

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Key Takeaways

  • People who gradually gain weight as they get older tend to live longest, according to a new study.
  • Researchers found those in the study who moved to overweight status tended to live longer than people whose BMI stayed in the normal range throughout their life.
  • Those who have obesity or who started adulthood with obesity and continued to gain weight had the highest mortality rate.

 

Putting on pounds as you age might feel frustrating, but it could lead to a longer life, suggests a new study in Annals of Epidemiology.

Looking at data on about 4,500 people who participated in the large-scale Framingham Heart Study, as well as over 3,700 of their children, researchers assessed how their body mass index (BMI) changed over time. (The study used the same BMI categories as the CDC: underweight, normal weight, overweight, and obese.) The original study ran from 1948 to 2011, and most of the original cohort had died by the study’s end, giving researchers a unique view of weight and mortality trends.

For both the original participants and their children, researchers found that those who started adulthood at a normal BMI and then slowly transitioned to the overweight category tended to live longer than those who stayed at a normal BMI throughout their lives.

Complex Issue

In terms of why the phenomenon of gradual weight gain might be protective, researchers note that it’s complicated.

“The timing and magnitude of weight gain are factors for longevity, in addition to the weight you start with in early adulthood,” says Hui Zheng, PhD, the study’s lead author and social epidemiologist at the Ohio State University.

“The takeaway message here is that gaining a modest amount of weight is not a death sentence,” he adds. “In fact, it may actually increase your probability of survival, compared to those who stay at the same, normal weight all their lives.”

Although they didn’t explore potential reasons for this, one possible explanation that previous studies have highlighted is increased frailty in later decades among those who are in the normal weight or underweight categories.

For example, research published in The Journals of Gerontology concluded that some excess body weight later in life may be beneficial for preventing frailty and could even boost mobility and lessen disability risk.

Hui Zheng, PhD

The takeaway message here is that gaining a modest amount of weight is not a death sentence.

— Hui Zheng, PhD

Hitting the Sweet Spot

Although transitioning from the normal to overweight category may have life-extending benefits, the researchers emphasized that more is not better. In fact, those who developed obesity over time had worse outcomes, and the shortest lifespans were seen with people who started adulthood with pre-existing obesity and then continued to gain weight.

That’s likely because obesity is so strongly associated with metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that include:

  • Abdominal obesity (excess weight in the waist)
  • High fasting blood sugar
  • High blood pressure
  • High triglyceride level
  • Low HDL cholesterol level (HDL is sometimes referred to as the "good" cholesterol)

People with three or more of these conditions meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome. They are at increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), people at greatest risk for metabolic syndrome are those with excess weight, an inactive lifestyle, and insulin resistance. The NIH adds that some racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. have higher risk for metabolic syndrome, particularly Mexican Americans. Also, women tend to be more affected than men.

Some lifestyle factors can raise risk as well, the NIH reports. These include smoking, being sedentary, and eating foods that negatively affect heart health, such as those with trans fats and ample added sugar.

Maintaining Mobility

Although the recent study highlights that some weight gain shouldn’t be a stress-inducing concern as we get older, it also doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to healthy habits, particularly exercise. Maintaining a high level mobility, no matter what your weight, is crucial as you age, since losing function can come with significant health risks.

For those who don’t have a regular exercise regimen, one solid first step might be simply walking every day, suggests certified personal trainer and running coach Kourtney Thomas.

Establishing a walking routine can keep your weight managed, and it brings other advantages such as:

  • Improving balance
  • Building lower body strength
  • Reducing sedentary time
  • Helping muscles and joints
  • Optimizing nervous system
  • Helping heart and brain health

Walking can also include a social component, Thomas adds, as well as getting fresh air and taking a break from screen time.

Establishing other healthy habits can be helpful as well, including eating fruits and vegetables, not smoking, staying moderate in alcohol consumption, and keeping a sense of purpose in mind. All of these can lead to healthier aging, Thomas says, and improve your quality of life.

What This Means For You

Gaining some weight as you age, even if it puts you into the "overweight" BMI category, could be protective in some ways. But experts caution that too much weight, especially if it leads to obesity or causes you to be more sedentary, would bring more health risks.

 

 

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Article Sources
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  1. Zheng H, Echave P, Mehta N, Myrskyla M. Life-long body mass index trajectories and mortality in two generations. Ann Epidemiol. 2021. doi:10.1016/j.annepidem.2021.01.003

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About adult BMI. Updated September 17, 2020.

  3. Bowen ME. The relationship between body weight, frailty, and the disablement processJ Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2012;67(5):618-626. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbs067

  4. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Metabolic syndrome. 2021.

  5. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Heart-healthy living—Choose heart-healthy foods. 2021.

  6. Arthritis Foundation. 12 benefits of walking. 2021.