Health

The Surprising Reason We Shouldn’t Stress About Gaining Weight as We Age

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The older you get, the less you may have to worry about weight gain! That’s the scoop from researchers who recently discovered that having a few extra pounds on us as we age might actually help us live longer.

A study from the Ohio State University (OSU) published in the Annals of Epidemiology looked at the correlation between BMI and mortality. According to the findings, people who had a healthy BMI in their young adult years but gradually became overweight in their later years were more likely to live longer. Researchers at OSU figured this out by pulling data from a Framingham Heart Study conducted between 1948 and 2014. This 66-year-long study followed the lives of 4,576 adults from 1948 to 2011, and their 3,753 offspring from 1971 to 2014. 

In the original group of adults, participants who lived longer tended to be those who had a normal weight at 31 years old, then slowly moved into an overweight status in their middle age or later years. In fact, these participants had lower mortality rates than those who maintained a normal weight throughout their middle age and old age. The group of adults with a constant BMI in a normal range had the second lowest mortality rate. The group with the third-lowest mortality rate was comprised of adults who maintained a stable, overweight status throughout their entire life. 

Groups with high mortality rates included adults who had subnormal BMIs, adults who were overweight in their 30s and lost weight as they got older, and adults who were obese and continued to gain weight. 

In the younger generation of adults, or the offspring group, there were similar trajectories in terms of mortality and BMI, as noted in a news report by OSU. In effect, both generations showed the same findings: Those who gained a modest amount of weight in their older years lived the longest. This was true even after researchers accounted for various factors that can increase risk of mortality, including smoking, gender, education, marital status, socioeconomic status, and diseases. 

These findings support a previous study from the American Journal of Epidemiology, which was also conducted by Hui Zheng. Over the course of this research, 9,538 adults between 51 to 77 years of age were observed from 1992 to 2008. In this study too, Zheng and his co-authors found that those who gained weight in their 50s but maintained a steady weight increased their longevity. Out of all the participants, these adults were most likely to survive over the next 19 years. 

Why might it benefit us to have a few extra pounds in our later years? Lead author and associate professor of sociology at OSU, Hui Zheng, PhD, explained, “The impact of weight gain on mortality is complex. It depends on both the timing and the magnitude of weight gain and where BMI started.” Still, Zheng and co-authors Paola Echave, Neil Mehta, and Mikko Myrskyla theorize that a higher weight could protect against nutritional deficiencies, along with muscle and bone loss caused by aging and chronic diseases. 

Barbara Nicklas, a professor of internal medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, confirmed this idea to AARP. “The BMI curve shifts to the right as you age,” Nicklas said. “Meaning higher weight is better in older age.” According to Nicklas, extra pounds can work as a buffer in case you lose weight in your older age due to digestive system conditions, or dental issues that make it tough to eat. Plus, a fuller figure can protect you against deadly fractures if you fall. 

So, it’s actually in your benefit to enjoy your meals as you age and relax the dieting. You don’t have to skimp on that piece of cake at a birthday party or limit your daily intake of calories! 

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