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Weight Linked to Late-Life Heart, Diabetes Deaths

Jan. 10, 2006 -- Adults who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of dying from heart disease and diabetes later in life, even if they don't have cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, new research shows.

Obesity is a big risk factor for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which, in turn, are big risk factors for heart and vascular disease.

But the new research, published in the Dec. 11 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, offers some of the strongest evidence yet that carrying excess weight is an independent risk factor for hospitalization and death from cardiovascular causes.

"Study after study has shown that overweight and obesity are associated with higher risks for many health outcomes," researcher Lijing L. Yan, PhD, MPH, tells WebMD. "What hasn't been clear is whether this risk is driven by the association with other risk factors."

Study Spanned Decades

Yan and colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago examined the relationship between excess weight earlier in life and illness and death after age 65 by following more than 17,600 people for decades.

The participants were between the ages of 31 and 64 when enrolled in a Chicago-based heart registry between 1967 and 1973. None had heart disease or diabetes at enrollment, and the average time of follow-up was 32 years. Most participants were white.

Cardiovascular risk at enrollment was considered low if the participant met three criteria:

  • Did not smoke
  • Had normal blood pressure (120/80 or less) and was not taking blood pressure drugs
  • Had total cholesterol below 200 mg/dL and was not taking drugs for cholesterol

Weight Matters

People were defined as normal weight, overweight, or obese by their body mass index (BMI). The BMI is calculated using a person's weight and height measurements. BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal weight, 25-29.9 overweight, 30 and greater obese.

The researchers found that the risk of dying from heart disease was 43% higher for study participants who were obese but also met these qualifications for low cardiovascular risk than for normal-weight, low-risk participants.

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