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How Does Weight Affect Length of Life?

Many women are most interested in the simple bottom-line question: how does my weight affect my overall risk of dying prematurely? Even though some of the details of the relationship between weight and premature death are still being debated by researchers, the answer in general is clear - being overweight or obese increases the risk of premature death.


Weight: Weighing the Risks


Compared to lean women, obese women have a:

  • Very high excess risk of diabetes and hypertension

  • High excess risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, endometrial cancer, gallstones, pulmonary embolism, and reduced quality of life

  • Moderately excess risk of premature death, breast cancer (Postmenopause), colon cancer, kidney stones, and high blood cholesterol

Weight Gain

Compared to women whose weight has remained relatively stable in adulthood, those who have gained thirty pounds or more have a:

  • Very high excess risk of diabetes

  • High excess risk of stroke, hypertension, and endometrial cancer

  • Moderately excess risk of coronary heart disease

  • Small excess risk of breast cancer (Postmenopause)

Waist Size

Compared to women with small waists, women with waist sizes of thirty-five inches or more have a:

  • Very high excess risk of diabetes

  • High excess risk of coronary heart disease.


Obese women have a greatly increased risk of premature death compared to the lean women. Much of this increase seemed to be due to deaths from cancer and coronary heart disease. The obese women are twice as likely to die from cancer and four times more likely to die from coronary heart disease than their leaner counterparts.

Gaining weight in adulthood also increased risk of premature death. Women who have put on twenty-two pounds or more since age eighteen, regardless of their starting weight, are at an increase risk of premature death compared to women whose weight had stayed steady over the same time period. Women who gain more than forty-five pounds are at the highest risk- 60 percent greater than women whose weight continues to remain steady.

In a Nurses Health Study, it was found that all women in the healthy weight range who had maintained a stable weight had very similar low rates of premature death. Smoking and undiagnosed disease (such as cancer), which are linked to leanness as well as to an increased risk of premature death, can complicate the weight and premature death. In the Nurses' Health Study, when smoking and undiagnosed disease was taken into account, it was found that the risk of dying prematurely was low for all women in the healthy weight range and increased steadily in the overweight and obese.

Women who are extremely underweight can experience a number of health problems, including osteoporosis, fatigue, and menstrual and reproductive disorders.


Although the details of the individual studies can seem confusing at times, the general conclusion about the link between weight and health is very basic: carrying excessive weight and gaining weight as an adult is generally bad for health. The evidence also shows, though, that the achievable goals of avoiding significant weight gain as you age and losing a modest amount of weight (if you are overweight) can have significant health benefits.

Reference used:

1) Healthy Women, Healthy lives. A Harvard Medical School Book.

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