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Obesity, Disability Linked in Elders

Obese Older Adults Develop More Disabilities, Study Shows

Study Interpretations

The increases are concerning for a couple of reasons, Alley says.

"One is, it means obese people are experiencing more potentially preventable impairments," she tells WebMD. "Second is that it means in the future, if this trend continues, increasing obesity rates are likely to slow health improvements in the elderly," such as better cardiovascular health due to better treatment.

"The change over time [in increased disability] is what is really surprising," Alley says.

The more obese, the higher the disability risk, the researchers also found. They classified the obese people in three segments:

  • Those with a body mass index of BMI of 30 to 34.9
  • Those with a BMI of 35 to 39.9
  • Those with a BMI of 40 and above

A 5-foot 8-inch person who weighs 164 has a BMI of 24.9 (the top of the healthy range). A person the same height who weighs 197 has a BMI of 30; one who weights 263 has a BMI of 40.

More Obese People Becoming Disabled

"We've seen evidence for a while that obesity relates to disability," says Edward W. Gregg, PhD, an epidemiologist at the CDC's Division of Diabetes Translation, who co-authored an editorial to accompany the study. What the new study shows, however, is that more obese people are disabled than in the past.

That may be due, Gregg, Alley, and her co-researcher believe, to the fact that the people studied in the second time period have spent more years being obese than those studied in the first time period when obesity was not as common. In effect, the years of obesity have caught up with them.

That explanation makes sense to Roland Sturm, PhD, senior economist at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., who has published predictions about obesity causing more disability. "It's long been known than obesity has a lot do to with disability," he tells WebMD after reviewing the new study. "The new wrinkle here is, the effect of obesity on disability may have increased."

He adds: "The effects of obesity, just like the effects of smoking, only show up after a while."


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