Weight gain from early to middle adulthood may increase risk of major chronic diseases and mortality

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For immediate release: Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Boston, MA – Cumulative weight gain over the course of early and middle adulthood may increase health risks later in life, according to a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They found that, compared to people who kept their weight stable, people who gained a moderate amount of weight (5–22 pounds) before age 55 increased their risk of chronic diseases, premature death, and decreased the likelihood of achieving healthy aging. Higher amounts of weight gain were associated with greater risk of chronic diseases.

The study will be published online July 18, 2017 in JAMA.

“Our study is the first of its kind to systematically examine the association of weight gain from early to middle adulthood with major health risks later in life,” said senior author Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology and chair of the Department of Nutrition. “The findings indicate that even a modest amount of weight gain may have important health consequences.”

Most people gain weight cumulatively during young and middle adulthood. Because the amount of weight gain per year may be relatively small, it may go unnoticed by individuals and their doctors—but the cumulative weight gain during adulthood may be large.

The researchers analyzed health data from 118,140 study participants, including 92,837 women in the Nurses’ Health Study between 1976 and 2012, and 25,303 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study between 1986 and 2012. Participants were asked to recall their weight from early adulthood (age 18 for women, 21 for men) and to report their weight at age 55. Women gained an average of 22 pounds over early to middle adulthood, and men about 19 pounds.

Compared to those who kept their weight stable (not gaining or losing more than five pounds), those who gained a moderate amount of weight had an increased risk of major chronic diseases and premature death, and were less likely to score well on a “healthy aging” assessment of physical and cognitive health. In a meta-analysis of study participants from the two cohorts, each 5-kilogram (11-pound) weight gain was associated with a 30% increased risk of type 2 diabetes, 14% increased risk of hypertension, 8% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, 6% increased risk of obesity-related cancer, 5% increased risk of dying prematurely (among never smokers), and 17% decreased odds of achieving healthy aging.

“These findings may help health professionals counsel patients about the health consequences of weight gain. Prevention of weight gain through healthy diets and lifestyle is of paramount importance,” said Yan Zheng, who worked on the study while a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Chan School and is now professor of epidemiology at Fudan University, China.

Other Harvard Chan co-authors of the study included JoAnn Manson, Changzheng Yuan, Matthew Liang, Francine Grodstein, Meir Stampfer, and Walter Willett.

The study’s cohorts were supported by grants UM1 CA186107, P01 CA87969, and UM1 CA167552 from the National Institutes of Health. The study was supported by grant HL034595 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and grant DK46200 from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Zheng was supported by fellowship 7-12-MN-34 from the American Diabetes Association. 

“Associations of Weight Gain From Early to Middle Adulthood With Major Health Outcomes Later in Life,” Yan Zheng, JoAnn E. Manson, Changzheng Yuan, Matthew H. Liang, Francine Grodstein, Meir J. Stampfer, Walter C. Willett, Frank B. Hu, JAMA, online July 18, 2017, doi: 10.1001/jama.2017.7092

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Todd Datz

photo: UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan School teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.