Obesity, Disability Linked in Elders
Obese Older Adults Develop More Disabilities, Study Shows
WebMD News Archive
Nov. 6, 2007 -- Here's yet another reason to maintain a healthy weight as you age: Obesity and disability are linked. Older adults who
are obese develop more disabilities that interfere with daily living than older
adults who are normal weight or slightly overweight, according to a new
For some types of disabilities, the risk among obese people is twice as
great as among normal-weight people.
"It's not just that obese people have a higher risk [of these
disabilities] than normal-weight people," says researcher Dawn Alley, PhD,
a postdoctoral fellow at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society
Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. "What is
new about this research is that the risk is actually increasing in obese people
Adults aged 60 and over who are slightly overweight did not have much of an
increased risk of impairment, Alley says. But in those who were obese, the risk
rose at a rate she considers "concerning." The more obese, the greater
the risk, she found.
While previous research has suggested that the effect of obesity on
disability remained constant over time, with disability rising in both the
obese and the non-obese, the new study, published in the Nov. 7 issue of The
Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests otherwise.
Obesity and Disability Linked
Alley and co-researcher Virginia W. Chang, MD, PhD, looked at the
association between obesity and disability by analyzing data from a large
national survey at two different time points. They looked at the National
Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys for 1988 to 1994 and for 1999 to 2004.
In all, they evaluated the obesity-disability association for nearly 10,000
adults aged 60 and older.
Obesity became more common over time. While 23.5% of participants in the
first survey were obese, 31.7% of those in the second survey were.
Participants were classified as having a functional limitation if they had
much difficulty or an inability to perform any of six everyday activities.
These included walking a quarter mile, walking up 10 steps without resting,
lifting or carrying 10 pounds, walking between rooms on the same floor,
standing up from an armless chair, and the actions of stooping, crouching, and
They also evaluated each participant's limitations in activities of daily
living and classified them as limited if they had much difficulty or couldn't
perform any of three tasks: getting in and out of bed, dressing themselves, and
"At time point 1, obese older people were only 50% more likely than
normal-weight people to be functionally impaired," says Alley. "At time
point 2, they were 98% more likely to be functionally impaired than
"The risk of functional impairment among obese elderly increased 24%
over time," she tells WebMD.
During the first survey, the risk of having a limitation in daily living
activities wasn't significantly different between obese and normal-weight
participants. But by the second survey, the risk of having such difficulty was
twice as great for obese people.