Healthy obesity and risk of accelerated functional decline and disability

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Some obese adults have a normal metabolic profile and are considered ‘healthy’, but whether they experience faster ageing than healthy normal-weight adults is unknown. We compared decline in physical function, worsening of bodily pain and likelihood of future mobility limitation and disability between these groups.


This was a population-based observational study using repeated measures over 2 decades (Whitehall II cohort data). Normal-weight (body mass index (BMI) 18.5-24.9 kg m-2), overweight (25.0-29.9 kg m-2) and obese (≥ 30.0 kg m-2) adults were considered metabolically healthy if they had 0 or 1 of 5 risk factors (hypertension, low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, high triacylglycerol, high blood glucose and insulin resistance) in 1991/1994. Decline in physical function and worsening of bodily pain based on change in Short Form Health Survey items using eight repeated measures over 18.8 years (1991/1994-2012/2013) were compared between metabolic-BMI groups using linear mixed models. Odds of mobility limitation based on objective walking speed (slowest tertile) and of disability based on limitations in ≥ 1 of 6 basic activities of daily living, each using three repeated measures over 8.3 years (2002/2004-2012/2013), were compared using logistic mixed models.


In multivariable-adjusted mixed models on up to 6635 adults (initial mean age 50 years; 70% male), healthy normalweight adults experienced a decline in physical function of -3.68 (95% CI = -4.19, -3.16) score units per decade; healthy obese adults showed an additional -3.48 (-4.88, -2.08) units decline. Healthy normal-weight adults experienced a -0.49 (-1.11, 0.12) score unit worsening of bodily pain per decade; healthy obese adults had an additional -2.23 (-3.78, -0.69) units worsening. Healthy obesity versus healthy normal-weight conferred 3.39 (2.29, 5.02) times higher odds of mobility limitation and 3.75 (1.94, 7.24) times higher odds of disability.


Our results suggest that obesity, even if metabolically healthy, accelerates age-related declines in functional ability and poses a threat to independence in older age.

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