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A Few Extra Pounds May Extend Lifespan in Older Adults

Update Date: Sep 19, 2013 11:23 AM EDT

Being a little overweight might actually add years to your life, a new study suggests. New research reveals that older adults may live longer with a few extra pounds, but only if they don't pile on more pounds.

A new nationwide study found that adults in their 50 were more likely to survive over the next 16 years if they were slightly overweight.

Researchers said slightly overweight older adults had better survival rates than their normal-weight counterparts whose weight increased slightly, but stayed within the normal range.

In contrast, people who started out as very obese in their 50s and continued to gain weight were the most likely to die during the next 16 years.

Researchers said the findings suggest that about 7.2 percent of deaths after the age of 51 are due to weight gain among obese people.

Researchers warned that the latest findings apply only to people over 50. Previous studies reveal that being overweight may not be beneficial for younger people.

"Our other research suggests that the negative effect of obesity on health is greater for young people than it is for older people, so young people especially shouldn't think that being overweight is harmless," lead researcher Hui Zheng, an assistant professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, said in a news release.

The study used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of Americans born between 1931 and 1941. Researchers analyzed 9,538 respondents who were aged 51 to 61 when the survey began in 1992. The participants were interviewed every two years until 2008. Researchers had information on how their body mass index changed at each interview and whether they died at any point before December 2009.

Researchers then grouped the participants into six groups, depending on their BMI at the beginning of the study and how it changed over the 16-year period they were surveyed.

The findings revealed that slightly overweight people (BMI 25 to 29.9) whose weight was steady had the highest survival rate. People who moved from overweight to obese (BMI 30 to 34,9) had the second highest survival rate. People with normal weight (BMI of 18.5 to 24.9) whose weight increased slightly had the third highest survival rate, and those who were Class I obese (BMI of 30 to 34.9) whose weight was moving upward had the fourth highest survival rate. The fifth highest survival rate among six groups was normal individuals who lost weight, and those with the lowest survival rate were the most obese individuals (BMI of 35 and over) who continued to gain weight.

Researchers noted that the study took into account a wide variety of demographic and socioeconomic factors that may play a role in both weight and mortality among Americans. The study also accounted for whether the participants smoked, had chronic illness and how they rated their own health. The findings held true even after all these factors were taken into account.

Researchers said that slightly being overweight might protect older people because illnesses and disease come with age. Having a little extra weight may provide protection against nutritional and energy deficiencies, metabolic stress and the development of wasting and frailty and loss of muscle and bone density caused by chronic diseases.

The findings are published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

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