Are overweight people likely to live longer?

A new study finds that people with higher body mass indexes tend to outlive their more slender peers

Those extra pounds may mean more trips to the doctor, which could benefit heavier people in the long run.
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The question: Being overweight is, generally speaking, not a good thing. For starters, obese people are more prone to health problems like heart disease and diabetes. Then there's the years of aches, joint pains, and lower quality of life that results directly from carrying around all that extra poundage. However, a new study finds that being slightly overweight is not that bad for you after all, and may even have unexpected health benefits. The study — published by Dr. Katherine Flegal of the National Center of Health Statistics in the Journal of the American Medical Association — asks the question: Do overweight individuals live longer?

How it was tested: To get a large sample size from all over the globe, Flegal and her colleagues combed through some 100 scholarly articles — surveying a total of 3 million patients — that addressed the link between an individual's body mass index and the risk of dying prematurely. The team then zeroed in on 270,000 deaths in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, China, Japan, Brazil, Israel, and Mexico.

The outcome: Surprisingly, overweight people with a BMI between 30 and 35 demonstrated a 6 percent lower risk of an early death. It may not seem like a huge percentage leap, but "it's statistically significant," says Flegal, particularly given the fact that about one-third of Americans fall into this weight category. However, people categorized as "grossly obese" (BMI of 35+) were 29 percent more likely to die early than slim counterparts of the same age.

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The reasoning: Flegal and her team say fatter people are more likely to visit the doctor than people who generally appear healthier (or at least thinner). In addition, the authors suggest that larger individuals may have "[a] greater likelihood of receiving optimal medical treatment, cardioprotective metabolic effects of increased body fat, and benefits of higher metabolic reserves."

What other experts say: The study is receiving a fair amount of criticism. Walter Willet, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, tells NPR that the research "really is a pile of rubbish and no one should waste their time reading it." Willet says the analysis is misleading because it doesn't account for people who have lost weight because they are ill (suffering from cancer, for example). And more importantly, the study doesn't acknowledge that overweight people may be spending their extra years beset by chronic diseases. "We have a huge amount of other literature showing that people who gain weight or are overweight have increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, many cancers, and many other conditions," argues Willet.

The lesson: It's probably still not a good idea to gorge on pizza and soda on a regular basis, even if that extra body mass adds a few years of life.

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