Senior Obesity And Weight Gain Shouldn't Be Ignored (STUDY)

02/06/2013 01:42 pm ET

Now that you're getting older, you no longer have to worry about cutting back on saturated fat or making sure you consume five to nine servings of vegetables a day, right? After all these years of counting calories, surely you no longer have to fret over your weight, right? Wrong! A new study finds that obese seniors are at greater risk of death than their younger overweight counterparts.

Previous research had indicated that an elevated BMI (Body Mass Index) at age 65 and older wouldn't impact one's lifespan and that it may actually extend it. But a new study has discovered the contrary, finding that, as obese Americans grow older, their risk of death grows greater.

Dr. Ryan Masters and Dr. Bruce Link at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, in collaboration with Dr. Daniel Powers at the University of Texas, published the results of the study online this week in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The researchers argue that previous studies of longevity and obesity were biased due to limitations of the National Health Interview Survey, or NHIS, which provides information on obesity. For example, the survey excludes those who are institutionalized, such as in a hospital or nursing home -- a segment largely made up of seniors. Consequently, the data is overrepresented by older respondents who are healthy, including the relatively healthy obese. What’s more, many obese people fail to make it to age 65 and therefore don't live long enough to participate in studies of older populations.

“Obesity wreaks so much havoc on one’s long-term survival capacity that obese adults either don’t live long enough to be included in the survey or they are institutionalized and therefore also excluded. In that sense, the survey data doesn’t capture the population we’re most interested in,” says Masters, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at Columbia’s Mailman School and the study’s first author.

In his analysis Masters studied data from nearly 800,000 adults between 1986 and 2004. The result: risk for death from obesity climbed with age.

Masters told Huff/Post50 that the level of obesity also has an impact on mortality.

"So we compared the survival of respondents with a normal or overweight BMI to respondents in [various] grades of obesity. Mortality risk increases in a successive manner, with higher BMI conferring a higher mortality risk," he said. "These results are consistent with existing evidence. So, yes, 'how' obese one is certainly matters, in a logically consistent way."

When asked how much one's mortality risk goes up due to obesity over the age of 65, Masters supplied the following information to Huff/Post50:

Grade 1 Obesity (BMI of 30.0 to 34.9):
For both men and women, grade 1 obesity increased mortality risk at 65+ years by about 40 to 60 percent (or 1.4 to 1.6 times, respectively).

Grade 2 Obesity (BMI of 35.0 to 39.9):
Men's mortality risk at 65+ years was increased by about 80-100 percent (1.8 to 2.0x).
Women's mortality risk at 65+ years was increased by about 90-100 percent (1.9 to 2.0x).

Grade 3 Obesity (BMI over 40):
Men's mortality risk at 65+ years was increased by about 160 to 260 percent (2.6 to 3.6x).
Women's mortality risk at 65+ years was increased by about 160 to 180 percent (2.6 to 2.8x).

Earlier on HuffPost50:

Dr. Colvin's Advice For Staying Active After 50