Do overweight folks live longer? It is not uncommon to see graphs like the one below, from the Med Journal Watch blog (), suggesting that, at least as far as body mass index (BMI) is concerned (), overweight folks (25 < BMI < 30) seem to live longer. The graph shows BMI measured at a certain age, and risk of death within a certain time period (e.g., 20 years) following the measurement. The lowest-mortality BMI is about 26, which is in the overweight area of the BMI chart.
Note that relative age-adjusted mortality risk (i.e., relative to the mortality risk of people in the same age group), increases less steeply in response to weight variations as one becomes older. An older person increases the risk of dying to a lesser extent by weighing more or less than does a younger person. This seems to be particularly true for weight gain (as opposed to weight loss).
The table below is from a widely cited 2002 article by Allison and colleagues (), where they describe a study of 10,169 males aged 25-75. Almost all of the participants, ninety-eight percent, were followed up for many years after measurement; a total of 3,722 deaths were recorded.
Take a look at the two numbers circled in red. The one on the left is the lowest-mortality BMI not adjusting for fat mass or fat-free mass: a reasonably high 27.4. The one on the right is the lowest-mortality BMI adjusting for fat mass and fat-free mass: a much lower 21.6.
I know this may sound confusing, but due to possible statistical distortions this does not mean that you should try to bring your BMI to 21.6 if you want to reduce your risk of dying. What this means is that fat mass and fat-free mass matter. Moreover, all of the participants in this study were men. The authors concluded that: “…marked leanness (as opposed to thinness) has beneficial effects.”
Then we have an interesting 2003 article by Bigaard and colleagues () reporting on a study of 27,178 men and 29,875 women born in Denmark, 50 to 64 years of age. The table below summarizes deaths in this study, grouping them by BMI and waist circumference.
These are raw numbers; no complex statistics here. Circled in green is the area with samples that appear to be large enough to avoid “funny” results. Circled in red are the lowest-mortality percentages; I left out the 0.8 percentage because it is based on a very small sample.
As you can see, they refer to men and women with BMIs in the 25-29.9 range (overweight), but with waist circumferences in the lower-middle range: 90-96 cm for men and 74-82 cm for women; or approximately 35-38 inches for men and 29-32 inches for women.
Women with BMIs in the 18.5-24.9 range (normal) and the same or lower waists also died in small numbers. Underweight men and women had the highest mortality percentages.
A relatively small waist (not a wasp waist), together with a normal or high BMI, is an indication of more fat-free mass, which is retained together with some body fat. It is also an indication of less visceral body fat accumulation.