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Study: Obese People Live as Long as Slimmer People

Researchers Say Healthy Lifestyle May Be as Important as Body Weight
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 16, 2011 -- Obese people who are otherwise healthy live as long as normal-weight people, new research from Canada suggests.

Some obese but healthy people actually are less likely to die of heart problems than normal-weight people who have some medical conditions, the researchers found.

"You shouldn't just look at body weight alone," says researcher Jennifer Kuk, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology and health science at York University in Toronto.

"A healthy lifestyle, including being physically active and eating a healthy diet, is probably more important than your body weight and focusing on weight loss, if you are otherwise healthy," she tells WebMD.

Kuk and her colleagues used a new tool that helps identify which people would benefit from weight loss and from weight loss surgery. Called the Edmonton Obesity Staging System (EOSS), it grades or stages obese people depending on whether they have diseases such as heart disease or cancer.

The study is published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism.

Obesity vs. Normal Weight

The researchers followed 6,000 obese Americans for 16 years, from 1987 to 2001. They compared their risk of dying from any cause or from heart disease with the risks of death for more than 23,000 normal-weight people.

For this study, they modified the EOSS, which normally includes stages zero to 4, to zero to 3.

The stages are based on traditional measurements such as body mass index (BMI). A BMI of 30 or above is termed obese.

The system also takes into account clinical measurements such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Those obese people in stages 2 or 3, who had moderate to severe co-existing medical conditions, were 1.6 to 1.7 times as likely as the normal-weight people to die from any cause during the follow-up.

They were more than two times as likely to die of a cardiovascular cause.

However, those in stage 0 or 1 who had mild or no other coexisting medical conditions were at a similar risk of death as normal-weight people. Their risk of death from heart disease was slightly lower than normal-weight people. Those in stage 0 and stage 1, Kuk tells WebMD, are physically active and eat well, including lots of fruits and vegetables. They also tend to feel fine and may not be interested in losing weight.

Those in stage 1 may have slightly elevated blood pressure, for instance, Kuk says. But it's not yet high enough to require medication.

The average BMI of those in stages 0 and 1 was 33. Those in stage 2 had an average BMI of 33.4. Those in stage 3 had an average BMI of 33.5

The message, she cautions, is not that you can become as heavy as you want without consequences. The more you gain, the more likely you are to develop the conditions of those in the higher stage groups, she tells WebMD.

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