Obesity May Be a Danger for Older Women

Obesity tied to disability and death among older women in new study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Though people may think that they are healthy and set for a long life if they don't have a chronic disease, this may not be the case if obesity comes into play. Researchers behind a new study explored how obesity affected older women as they aged.

The researchers followed women across the US until they reached the age of 85.

The study showed that obesity was associated with a higher risk of death, major chronic disease and mobility problems before the age of 85.

"Try to exercise several days a week to stay fit."

The researchers, led by Eileen Rillamas-Sun, PhD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, wanted to explore if obesity had an effect on the survival of women through 85 years of age.

Dr. Rillamas-Sun and colleagues looked at data from the Women’s Health Initiative observational study and clinical trial program. Data came from 40 different clinics across the US from October 1993 to December 1998. Women who could have been aged 85 or older if they survived to the most recent evaluation on September 17, 2012, were included in the study.

The researchers identified 36,611 women ranging between the ages of 66 and 81 at the study's onset. The women's average age was 72.4 years old.

Obesity was determined based on waist circumference and body mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight to height. A waist circumference greater than 88 centimeters (34.6 inches) or a BMI greater than 30 were considered obese. A major chronic disease was considered an issue like heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes or a hip fracture.

Of the women, 19 percent were found to be healthy and without any chronic disease or mobility disability at age 85, and 14.7 percent were found to have survived to age 85 with one or more chronic diseases at the study's onset but without developing any new disease during the study.

An additional 23.3 percent survived and developed one or more major chronic diseases but no mobility disabilities during the study's course. A total of 18.3 percent were considered disabled — they survived and developed a mobility disability (with or without chronic disease). Lastly, 24.8 percent of the women died.

While 12 percent of women with a healthy weight (a BMI of 18.5 to 25) at the study's onset were disabled by age 85, the same was true for 25.2 percent of women with a BMI of 30 to 35, 33.3 percent of women with a BMI of 35 to 40 and 34.1 percent of women with a BMI greater than 40.

Results regarding disability and waist circumference were similar — 24.8 percent of women with a waistline greater than 88 centimeters (34.6 inches) at the study's outset were disabled by the time they reached age 85, compared to 14.2 percent of women with a waistline under that measurement.

Dr. Rillamas-Sun and team also noted that obese women and underweight women (with a BMI of under 18.5) alike were more likely to die before age 85.

Of the underweight women, 37.9 percent did not survive to 85, while the same was true of 23.4 percent of healthy weight women, 26.6 percent of women with a BMI of 30 to 35, 32.4 percent of women with a BMI of 35 to 40 and 37.5 percent of women with a BMI over 40.

"Obese and overweight women and those with a higher waist circumference also had increased risk of developing coronary disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and/or hip fracture before 85 years of age," Dr. Rillamas-Sun and team wrote.

"It is crucial that you think of your body as something that can improve and make progress. Perhaps you won't run like you did when you were 20 years old but with some work you can gain flexibility and cardiovascular health," said Jim Crowell, owner and head trainer at Integrated Fitness.

"I advise that all of my clients slowly work in movements that help with their flexibility and also with their strength. When you figure out what mobility and strength issues you have, you can begin to fix them," Crowell said. "When you feel more full range movements improving you will feel more able to exercise more consistently with fewer aches and pains and you will begin to move forward with great momentum!"

The researchers noted that their study did not take changes to weight or waist circumference over time into account, but instead focused on obesity at the beginning of the study. Further research is needed to confirm these findings.

The study was published online November 11 in JAMA Internal Medicine. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
November 8, 2013
Last Updated:
November 25, 2013