For elderly, extra pounds may lower mortality rates

UCI study suggests body mass index standards for younger adults may not be appropriate for people in their 80s and 90s

Irvine, Calif. -- If you're more than 80 years old, carrying a few extra pounds might not be such a bad idea. In fact, it may be beneficial.

That's one of the findings from a joint UC Irvine and University of Southern California analysis of body mass index (BMI) and mortality rates from participants of a large-scale study based in a Southern California retirement community.

The analysis found that study participants in their 80s and 90s who were overweight by BMI standards (25 to 29.9 range) had lower mortality rates than those who were in the normal range (18.5 to 24.9). The findings suggest that the BMI scale, which applies to all adults, may not be appropriate for the elderly and should be age-adjusted. This supports other research offering the same conclusion. The study appears in the May 15 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

"We found that what's recommended for everyone else with body mass index measurements isn't necessarily the best for the elderly," says Maria Corrada, an epidemiologist in the UCI School of Medicine who led the analysis effort. "It seems that if you're in your 80s or 90s, you may live even longer if you are a bit overweight by BMI standards."

The study, which is part of the Leisure World Cohort Study at Laguna Woods, Calif., looked at survey data taken from 13,451 residents in the large retirement community in 1981-83 and 1985. The residents, whose average age was 73 at the time of the survey, provided their height and weight at age 21 and at the time of the survey.

In addition to finding that those who were overweight had the lowest mortality rates, the researchers discovered:

  • People who were underweight at the time of the survey (BMI below 18.5) had the highest mortality rates, even higher than those who were obese (BMI 30 and higher).
  • People who were either overweight or obese at age 21 had increased mortality rates. This held true even if they lost the weight by the time of the survey.
  • People who lost weight between age 21 and late adulthood had increased mortality regardless of their weight at age 21.

"What's interesting about these findings is that is supports previous studies that recommend people to stay in the 'normal' BMI range during young adulthood and slowly gain weight during their elderly years," Corrada said. "In turn, obesity during young adulthood and being underweight during the elderly years leads to higher mortality rates."

"The overall message," Corrada added, "should be that what constitutes a 'normal' range for people over 80s should be re-examined."


Founded by Dr. Annlia Paganini-Hill of the Keck School of Medicine of USC in 1981, the population-based Leisure World Cohort Study studies aging-related health issues. UCI geriatric neurologist Dr. Claudia Kawas and Corrada also manage the Clinic for Aging Research and Education at Leisure World, where they work with people who are aged 90 or over to study ways to maximize the potential of the oldest-old as they age. The clinic is part of the Institute for Brain Aging & Dementia at UCI. For more information, see

Paganini-Hill, Kawas and Farah Mozaffar of UCI collaborated with Corrada on this study, which received support from the National Institutes of Health.

About Body Mass Index: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services uses BMI to measure overweight and obesity. BMI is a number calculated from a person's weight and height and is a reliable indicator of body fatness for people. It does not measure body fat directly, but research has shown that BMI correlates to direct measures of body fat. Additionally, BMI is an easy-to-perform method of screening for weight categories that may lead to health problems. The use of BMI allows people to compare their own weight status to that of the general population. For more information, see

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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