Lifelong obesity linked to physical difficulties in middle age, new study finds

20 June 2019

People who are obese from childhood through to middle age have more than double the risk of experiencing difficulties with everyday tasks at age 50 compared to those who were never obese.

The University College London study found that those who became obese early in life were much more likely to have problems with tasks such as lifting, climbing stairs and carrying shopping in middle age.

The researchers analysed data on more than 8,500 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in 1958 who are being followed by the National Child Development Study. Physical functioning was assessed with a validated questionnaire that asked participants how able they were to perform physical tasks, such as carrying shopping, bending, kneeling, climbing up stairs and walking moderate distances.

The longer a person had been obese the greater the risk of physical difficulties at age 50, the study found, with those who became obese in middle age having a smaller increase in risk. For example, men who became obese between the ages of 45 and 50 faced an increased risk of about 50 per cent, while for women the risk increase was 78 per cent. The authors suggested this was likely because people who were obese for longer were also more likely to have a higher BMI by the age of 50.

Dr Nina Rogers, lead author of the study, said: “The prevalence of obesity at younger ages is increasing. Since obesity in childhood often tracks into adulthood, it is likely that more people will spend increasing periods of their life living with obesity.

“Our study therefore emphasises the importance of preventing and delaying the onset of obesity in order to mitigate the risk of poor physical functioning in middle age.”

The study found that obesity at any age in adulthood was associated with greater risk of poor physical functioning at age 50. For example, compared to a woman of average height (1.62cm) and weight at 23 years, an 8kg higher weight was associated with a 32 per cent greater risk of poor physical functioning at the age of 50.

The most limited 10 per cent of respondents in each gender were classed as having poor physical functioning. Half of the participants classified as having poor physical functioning reported that they had trouble bending, kneeling or stooping and just over a quarter had difficulty bathing or dressing.

The authors said that being able to carry out everyday physical tasks, such as those examined, was important as it enabled people to live independently, work or volunteer for longer, and engage more with friends, family and the community around them.

Dr Snehal Pinto Pereira, senior author of the study, added: “Adults need to be able to perform the physical tasks of daily living  in order to live independently and this is particularly important in the context of an ageing population. Examining physical functioning in middle age is crucial because there may be scope to intervene to delay or possibly reverse poor physical functioning before older ages when problems may be harder to alter.”

Further information

‘Birthweight, lifetime obesity and physical functioning in mid-adulthood: a nationwide birth cohort study,’ by Nina Trivedy Rogers, Chris Power and Snehal M Pinto Pereira was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in June 2019.



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