Harvard Health Letter

Is hefty the new healthy?

Some studies suggest that extra weight helps older people live longer, but they may be misleading. Weight still matters, but so does the waist.

Americans have been getting heavier since the Civil War, and it's safe to say some of the added weight reflects improvements in health. Better nutrition, improved housing, control of infectious diseases — they all helped fill out the American physique, and add some inches to it as well. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the long-term trend of adding pounds took off, and we found ourselves in the midst of an obesity epidemic.

There was some good news early in 2010 when government researchers reported that the relentless rise in the proportion of Americans who are obese has leveled off since 2000, and especially so among women. That's fortunate, because an analysis published in The New England Journal of Medicine late in 2009 predicted that if obesity prevalence were to continue to climb as it did in the epidemic years, almost all the health gains from the reduction in smoking would be wiped out by the heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and joint problems caused by heftiness.

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