Higher Body Mass Index Linked to Greater Mortality Risk

VIDEO: The Mayo Clinics Dr. Michael Joyner: Study adds weight to growing problem.

It may not be true after all that being overweight protects people against certain types of mortality -- other than cancer and cardiovascular disease -- as some recent research has suggested.

According to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, being overweight or obese is associated with a higher rate of death from all causes.

Researchers led by Amy Berrington de Gonzalez, an investigator at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. analyzed data from more than 1.5 million white adults who participated in 19 past studies that evaluated risk for developing cardiovascular disease.

"We conducted the study to try and clarify the relationship between BMI [body mass index] and all-cause mortality, in part to answer two questions: what the optimal BMI range is and the risk associated with being overweight, or having a BMI of 25 to 30," said de Gonzalez. "There's particular uncertainty with regard to this second question."

"Obesity Paradox" Found in Other Studies

de Gonzalez said she and her team selected only subjects who were healthy non-smokers.

"Both poor health and smoking can bias the relationship between BMI and mortality, she said. "It's one of the possible explanations of the previous study findings that found the protective effect of being overweight."

De Gonzalez and her fellow researchers found that overweight participants had a 13 percent higher mortality risk than people in the lower BMI ranges, contrary to those previous findings. The beneficial effect of being overweight that other researchers found could also be due to other factors in addition to smoking and poor health, said obesity experts.

"We call it the 'obesity paradox,'" said Dr. Robert Kushner, clinical director of Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Comprehensive Center on Obesity in Chicago. "In certain subgroups, such as people with certain types of cancers, there may be a protective effect of being overweight."

"Those studies in general deal with older people," said Dr. Richard Atkinson, clinical professor of pathology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "As you get older, having a little extra fat allows you to survive a heart attack, survive trauma and other things. It's nice to have a little extra reserve." "Some of these studies that found that being slightly overweight was protective didn't necessarily assess for the type of body fat," said Dr. Philip Schauer, director of The Cleveland Clinic Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. "For example, fat on the belly is worse than fat on the buttocks or thighs."

But one biostatistician said that the association between overweight participants and mortality is small, and is likely due to confounding variables.

"What [the authors] don't point out is that the study model they used might also incompletely adjust for unmeasured confounding factors," said Bruce Levin, professor and chair of the Department of Biostatistics at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York.

De Gonzalez acknowledged that some variables may have interfered with their data.

"The increased risk for overweight people was small," said de Gonzalez. "You can never rule out confounding, but we ruled out everything we had information on."

Another of the study's limitations was the analysis of only white adults.

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