Extra pounds linked to lower mortality risk?
By Vanessa De La Rosa
There are thousands of studies and articles about obesity in America. In short: We’re fat. The epidemic plagues the majority of our country — 74 percent, approximately. The hot topic dominates discussion about wellness, health care reform and the economy. Being overweight or obese is linked to a higher mortality rate which, among other things, increases health care costs and creates obstacles for those applying for life insurance. So, are we really going to believe a new study that says just the opposite?
The Journal of American Medical Association published a study to determine the correlation between body mass and mortality risk this past week, claiming the following results:
- There was a 6 percent decrease in mortality risk among people classified as overweight.
- There was a 5 percent decrease in people classified as Grade 1 obese (the lowest level of obesity, versus Grade 2 and the highest level of obesity, Grade 3).
- Women with average height (5’4’’) and weight (between 108-145 pounds) have a higher mortality risk than those of the same height who weigh between 146-203 pounds.
- Men with average height (5’10’’) and weight (129-174) have a higher mortality risk than those of the same height who weigh between 175-243 pounds.
Extra pounds have repeatedly been linked to a higher risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, just a few of the numerous obesity-related diseases known to claim lives early and often. The Grade-3-obese study participants did, however, show results that align more with our common sense on this issue: They had nearly a 30 percent greater risk of mortality.
This meta-analysis reviewed data from 97 large epidemiological studies which analyzed over 2.88 million people and more than 270,000 deaths from all over the world, although primarily from North America and Europe.
As with any observational study, we are looking at mere correlations which do not necessarily confirm causal relationships or even a correct correlation. There could be any number of variables here that were overlooked. For example, it could be that people who are classified as overweight or Grade 1 obese are less likely to be involved in car accidents or aggravate their heart disease with strenuous exercise. Or it could be the thinner people in the study participated in other unhealthy activity, like smoking cigarettes. Who knows, but claiming that being overweight might actually lead to a lower mortality risk is dangerous and misleading, in my opinion.
And it looks like I’m not alone. A New York Times article on the study’s findings, “Our Absurd Fear of Fat,” as well as a Boston Globe piece, “You can’t bank on living longer if you’re overweight,” display similar levels of skepticism.
The data did not find a huge difference in mortality rates between the normal weight, overweight and obese groups. The author of the study, Katherine Flegal, acknowledged this, saying, “What we found suggests that over a broad range of body mass index levels, there’s not much variation in mortality… How much body weight affects health is a different issue, and we would tell individuals to consult their doctors about their own individual risks.” Phew.
Although the study isn’t claiming everyone with a normal weight needs to gain a few pounds, it does highlight something on the other end of the stick: Belonging to the “normal” or “healthy” weight category doesn’t necessarily mean you will live longer than your overweight counterparts. Living a healthy lifestyle still takes the cake... so to speak.