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Weight Loss By Middle Age Cuts Early Mortality Rates In Half: Study

middle age adult man on scale

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study shows better outcomes for people who are able to move from an obese BMI to an overweight BMI over the course of adulthood.
  • These adults reduced their risk of early death by over 50%.
  • "Early death" is considered death during middle age.

New obesity research shows weight loss over the course of adulthood may cut the risk of early death in half.

The study, published on August 14 in JAMA Network Open, shows that people who were considered obese at age 25 had a 54% decrease in mortality risk if they lost enough weight to be considered overweight—not obese—by middle age.

According to Colleen Wysocki-Woods, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian who was not affiliated with the study, these findings benefit people of any age.

“People who are obese may find it encouraging that losing just enough weight to move down to the overweight BMI classification may potentially help them live longer," she tells Verywell. "Teenagers and young adults should strive towards maintaining a normal BMI, since this study shows that those who can maintain normal weight through at least mid-life can prevent early death."

What This Means For You

Losing weight by middle age may have a profound health benefit: It could quite literally be a matter of life or death. Turning to a health professional for sustainable support is one of the best steps toward achieving weight loss goals.

To conduct their study, researchers relied on self-reported data from 24,205 people originally recorded in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III (1988-1994). Data was collected every two years between 1999 and 2014. Over the course of followup through midlife—defined as 44 years, based on the mean of the data—5,846 deaths occurred.

Researchers estimate 3.2% of deaths among adults who remained obese could have been avoided with adequate weight loss by midlife. 

Most physicians use Body Mass Index (BMI) to determine whether a person is considered obese. According to the National Institutes of Health, a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese, and a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight.

Obesity in the U.S.

Obesity affects almost half of adults in the United States, and is a contributing factor to approximately 200,000 excess deaths per year.

Past data suggests that gaining weight throughout life increases risk of major chronic diseases and decreases the likelihood of healthy aging. This new data offers the encouraging news that weight loss may reduce some of that risk.

“This is reassuring and important conformation in working with our obese patients to lose weight,” Barry Silverman, MD, a cardiologist based in Atlanta, Georgia, tells Verywell. “We know that obesity contributes to hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and now COVID-19," he adds, noting that all of these conditions are associated with a higher risk of mortality.

This study does have some limitations, including reliance on self-reported data and using BMI as the only measure of obesity. Recently, physicians have argued against using weight or BMI to define obesity, suggesting it should be based on a person's overall health. Regardless, this study provides encouraging results and makes a case for treating obesity early in life.

How to Manage Obesity

“Those who want to lose weight can first consider the things they can control: physical activity, motivation levels, and diet,” Wysocki-Woods says.  

While personalized, doctor-prescribed guidance is the best health advice to follow, Vivian Schemper, RDN, LDN, registered dietitian and owner of The Healthy Plate RD, shares some general tips for weight loss:

  1. Be patient. It's natural to want to lose weight fast. But if you're going to lose weight for the long-term, it's important to realize that weight loss goals could take several months or years to reach.
  2. Make half of your plate vegetables. This small change can decrease the calorie level of your meals while upping the fiber and antioxidants in your diet.
  3. Be mindful of alcoholic drinks. Alcoholic beverages are often high in calories, and drinking in excess can lead to weight gain. Woman should consider limiting themselves to one drink per day, and men should consider limiting themselves to two.
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Article Sources
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  1. Xie W, Lundberg DJ, Collins JM, et al. Association of weight loss between early adulthood and midlife with all-cause mortality risk in the USJAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(8):e2013448. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.13448

  2. National Institutes of Health. Classification of overweight and obesity by BMI, waist circumference, and associated disease risks.

  3. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Adult obesity facts. Updated June 29, 2020.

  4. Zheng Y, Manson J, Yuan C, Liang M, Grodstein F, Stampfer M, Willst W, Hu F. Associations of weight gain from early to middle adulthood with major health outcomes later in life. JAMA. 2017 Jul 18;318(3):255-269. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.7092

  5. Wharton S, Lau D, Vallis M, Sharma A. Obesity in adults: A clinical practice guidelineCMAJ. August 04, 2020:192(31):E875-E89. doi:10.1503/cmaj.191707