Excess weight as a young adult predicts an earlier death

August 24, 2011


Those extra pounds many people carry at age 25 may shorten their lives, even if they slim down when they’re older.

A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study appearing this month in the Journal of Adolescent Health finds those who are overweight during young adulthood are likely to die earlier in life than others.

Dr. June Stevens

Dr. June Stevens

“People who are overweight as young adults might think they are only hurting their appearance – and believe they’ll be fine if they lose the weight when they’re older,” said study author June Stevens, PhD, chair of the nutrition department in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and AICR/WCRF Distinguished Professor of nutrition and epidemiology. “This study suggests that’s not true. That extra weight does have an impact on lifelong health.”

The risk of dying was 21 percent higher in those young adults with a higher body mass index (BMI) and still 28 percent higher when adjusting for other risk factors such as smoking status, physical activity and alcohol consumption.

“If you made everybody’s weight gain over those intervening years the same, there was still an effect of being heavier at age 25 on increased mortality,” said Stevens. “BMI in young adulthood matters. You can’t just make up for it by losing weight later. You need to be concerned about your BMI throughout your young adulthood.”

Stevens also noted that being overweight at age 25 had a greater impact on black women than white women and a greater impact on men than on women. However, the impact of obesity early in life was negligible in black men when adjusting for weight change throughout adulthood.

“I don’t really know what’s going on there,” Stevens said. “I think it’s interesting, but we don’t have an explanation now.”

Over the past 30 years, rates of obesity and overweight have tripled among young men (ages 20-39) and more than tripled among young women, Stevens said.

“Many studies show that people tend to gain weight when they go off to college, when they get married, and at other turning points in their lives,” Stevens said. “This study shows us how important it is to avoid ever gaining the weight in the first place. We have to concentrate on obesity and overweight prevention. Our lives and our health depend on it.”

The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Other authors from UNC were research assistant professor Kimberly Truesdale, PhD; research associate Chin-Hua Wang, PhD, and research assistant Eva Erber, MS, all of the nutrition department; and Jianwen Cai, PhD, professor of biostatistics.

The study is available at www.jahonline.org.

# # #

UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or ramona_dubose@unc.edu. Last updated August 29, 2011