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Obese Children More Likely to Die Prematurely – Overweight Teens Pass Away At a Younger Age – Nurses Health Study II

July 17th 2006

Heavy Children More Likely to Die Prematurely – Overweight Teens Pass Away At a Younger Age – Nurses Health Study II


Harvard researchers say that overweight children have an increased risk of premature death.  The researchers found that being overweight at 18 years of age is associated with an increased risk of premature death in younger and middle-aged women.

The data was extrapolated from 102,400 participants in the Nurses Health Study II, launched in 1989.  The study participants were all between the ages of 24 and 44.  They were asked what their weights were at age 18 and from this the researchers calculated their body mass index (BMI).  The BMI is weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters.


Rob van Dam said “Our findings add to studies on overweight in middle-aged and older populations by providing insight into the impact of adolescent overweight on adult mortality."  Van Dam is a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH and lead author of the study.

The nurses were asked other questions concerning their disease history, alcohol consumption, smoking and exercise. They found that women with a higher BMI at 18 consumed more alcohol, smoked more and were less likely to engage in vigorous physical activity during adolescence.

During the 12 year follow-up, 710 participants died.  The women with the higher BMI at the age of 18 had a higher risk of dying prematurely. That was true even for moderately overweight adolescents.  The major causes of death included cancer (258 deaths) and cardiovascular disease (55 deaths).  There were 144 deaths from external causes, and interestingly suicide was the “most common” cause (61 deaths).  


Even after adjusting for smoking, the results indicated that the higher BMI at age 18, the more likely the woman would die prematurely. Another key finding was that BMI at age 18 was a strong predictor of BMI in 1989 when women were, on average, 34 years old. Still, BMI in 1989 only partly explained the association between BMI at age 18 and premature death. In other words, being overweight as an adult couldn't fully explain why women died prematurely. Health effects of being overweight are specific to younger ages, differences in location of fat deposition, or long-term exposure to metabolic effects of being overweight may explain this finding.

The study appears in the July 18, 2006 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

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Dan Wilson
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