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Obesity at Age 25 Tied to Higher Risk of Severe Obesity Later in Life

Men and women who are obese at age 25 have a significantly higher chance of being severely obese a decade later, according to a study published online Tuesday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Considering that previous research has found a majority of overweight and obese youth maintain the same weight status throughout adulthood, the study has significant implications for the ongoing effort to prevent childhood obesity.

The study authors analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 1999-2010. They drew upon data from 13,887 respondents between the ages of 35 and 64 to examine the connection between obesity at 25 and weight status later in life. They also looked at data from 5,321 adults between the ages of 35 and 69 whose body mass index placed them in the obese category to determine if obesity at 25 had any impact on certain biomarkers of cardiovascular, metabolic and inflammatory risk later in life.

According to the data, men who were obese at 25 had a 23.1 percent probability of severe obesity (a body mass index above 40) after turning 35, while those who were normal weight at 25 only had a 1.1 percent likelihood of becoming severely obese later in life. (Those who were overweight at 25 had a 5.3 percent probability.)

Well and Good

The risk was even more dramatic for females. A woman who was obese at 25 had a 46.9 percent probability of severe obesity after age 35, compared to a 22.3 percent likelihood for women who were overweight at 25 and a 4.8 percent chance for women who were normal weight at 25.

"Thus, individuals who are obese at age 25 years have a substantial risk of morbid obesity later in life," the authors conclude, "with health effects that may be distinct from obesity duration."

Men who were in the obese category at 25 and after 35 had higher odds of elevated blood pressure compared to those who were of normal weight at 25 and obese after 35. Women who became obese more recently, meanwhile, were at higher risk for elevated total cholesterol and triglycerides compared to those who were obese at ages 25 and after age 35.

"The current findings suggest that the biological risks of longer-term obesity are primarily due to the risk of more severe obesity later in life among those obese early in life, rather than the impact of long-term obesity per se," explained lead study author Jennifer B. Dowd, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at City University of New York School of Public Health, Hunter College, in a statement. "This is good news in some respects, as overweight and obese young adults who can prevent additional weight gain can expect their biological risk factors to be no worse than those who reach the same level of BMI later in life."

In other words: The duration of obesity carries little extra risk when it comes to severe health problems (beyond the normal risks of obesity). The issue, instead, is that men and women who are obese when younger tend to grow even more significantly obese as they age, which then increases their likelihood of other related health problems.

These findings thus serve as additional ammunition for the ongoing efforts to prevent childhood obesity. In theory, reducing the number of children and teenagers who enter young adulthood obese should help decrease the likelihood that they become obese later in life. Considering a recent study published online in the journal Pediatrics estimated the lifetime cost of childhood obesity to range anywhere from $16,310 to $19,350, childhood-obesity-prevention efforts could end up saving millions of dollars in health-care costs.  

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