Weight Gain During Early and Middle Adulthood May Plague You Later in Life

A new study says cumulative weight gain may raise your risk of chronic disease.

Weight gain

Photo via istock.com/DanielKrylov

The freshman 15, stubborn post-baby weight, and desk job love handles may set you up for health problems later in life, according to a large new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study, published Tuesday in JAMA, looked at the effects of cumulative weight gain during early and middle adulthood. The researchers found that individuals who gain even a moderate amount of weight—between five and 22 pounds—before age 55 may have a higher risk of chronic disease, premature death, and unhealthy aging than those who maintain a stable weight. The more pounds packed on, the higher the risk of disease.

Interestingly, starting weight doesn’t appear to factor strongly into the study’s results. That suggests maintaining your body’s natural weight—within a healthy range—may be more important that striving for a uniform number on the scale.

That may be easier said than done, though, as most people gain weight slowly but steadily as they age. The nearly 93,000 women included in the study gained a self-reported average of 22 pounds between the ages of 18 and 55, while the 25,000 men gained a self-reported average of 19 pounds between the ages of 21 and 55. Individuals and doctors might not even notice such subtle changes in size, but the research suggests they make a significant impact on health.

Specifically, the Harvard team found that each 11-pound weight gain was associated with a 31 percent higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes, a 14 percent larger risk of high blood pressure, an 8 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease, a 6 percent greater risk of obesity-related cancer, and a 5 percent higher risk of premature death. In addition, each 11-pound gain was related to a 17 lower chance of achieving healthy aging.

The study does have a few limitations. For one, participants were asked to recall their weight at either age 18 or 21, which leads to underestimates. For another, participants were overwhelmingly white, and all were health professionals enrolled in either the Nurses’ Health Study or the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, so the population had better-than-average access to healthcare. Plus, weight gain is also tied to unhealthy lifestyle factors like physical inactivity and a poor diet.

Still, “these findings may help health professionals counsel patients about the health consequences of weight gain,” lead author Yan Zheng says in a statement. “Prevention of weight gain through healthy diets and lifestyle is of paramount importance.”