NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People who are overweight or obese in young adulthood and middle-age are at elevated risk of being disabled in their later years, a new study suggests.
The study, of more than 2,800 U.S. adults in their 70s, found that those who were overweight or obese at any point in adulthood had an increased risk of developing problems with walking and climbing stairs.
What's more, the longer a person had been overweight, the greater his or her risk of mobility limitations, the researchers report in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
The findings underscore the importance of preventing excessive weight gain early in life, according to lead researcher Dr. Denise Houston, an assistant professor of gerontology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
"The data suggest that interventions to prevent overweight and obesity in young and middle-aged adults may be useful in preventing or delaying the onset of mobility limitations later in life," Houston said in a news release from the university.
Excess pounds can contribute to later-life disability by creating wear-and-tear in the joints or raising the risks of chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes. People who become overweight at an early age, Houston and her colleagues note, may be habitually sedentary. That, in turn, leads to poorer fitness and weaker muscles, making them more vulnerable to disability later in life.
The findings are based on 2,845 adults in their 70s who were followed over seven years. At the outset, participants were asked to recall their weight at the ages of 25 and 50, and the researchers measured their current weight.
Overall, the study found, women who'd been overweight at all three time points were nearly three times more likely to develop a mobility limitation than their counterparts who'd been normal-weight throughout adulthood. Among men, the risk was increased by 61 percent.
The researchers also found that the risk of disability was elevated among participants who were normal-weight in their 70s but had been overweight earlier in life.
However, Houston explained, this may be because weight loss in older adults is often the result of poor health.
The findings are important, the researcher said, because the elderly population in the U.S. is growing -- as is the obesity rate.
"Over the past couple of decades there has been a trend toward declining rates of physical disability in older adults," Houston said.
"However," she added, "the dramatic increase in overweight and obesity in the United States may reverse these declines and may lead to an increase in physical disability among future generations of older adults."
SOURCE: American Journal of Epidemiology, April 15, 2009.