The report in The Independent stating that “overweight people live longer” has caused a stir. This headline was based on research in the United States, which showed that someone classed as being overweight, had a 6% lower chance of dying than someone who was a healthy weight.
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Researchers examined the findings of 97 previous studies – involving a total of 2.88 million people, from which 270,000 deaths were recorded during the course of the research – that investigated the risk of death in relation to body mass index (BMI), one means by which weight can be categorised, which takes into account a person’s height. Data was taken from these studies and combined to allow an analysis of all results, for which risk factors such as age and smoking status was accounted for.
Those participants classified as obese – with a BMI greater than 30 – were 18% more likely to die than those with a healthy weight. However, when separated into the different grades of obesity, those with grade 2 and 3 – BMI greater than 35 – showed an increase in likelihood of death of 29%, whereas those with grade 1 were not significantly more likely to experience death. The most interesting result of the study was that those with a BMI between 25 and 30 were 6% less likely to die than participants with a healthy weight. Even when other risk factors were controlled for, the relative risk of death did not change.
The authors of the research concluded that although risk of death was higher in grades 2 and 3 for obesity, there was no significant difference in grade 1 obesity and those who were classed as overweight had a significantly lower risk of mortality compared with those of a normal weight. Those who are overweight may fare better than their leaner counterparts, as they have more fat reserves should they lose weight due to illness or because doctors monitor risk factors such as cholesterol and blood pressure more closely, allowing diseases to be diagnosed sooner.
Owing to the large number of studies and participants included in this piece of research the findings can be considered to be reliable. However, the study investigated the risk of dying from any cause, rather than medical conditions related to obesity such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Another limitation is that the study used BMI as a measure of weight, which does not take into account the body’s fat content, distribution and muscle mass, all of which can influence disease risk. The research also did not consider the health of the participants; overweight people might live longer, but may have a poor quality of life due to their associated medical conditions.
By Amy Millband