Do Overweight People Live Longer?

Here's the expert advice and lowdown on the latest studies on whether or not heavy people really do live longer.

Do Overweight People Live Longer?Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

What You’ve Heard
If you’re heavy, you’ve probably been told to slim down for your health. After all, everyone knows that overweight people have higher risks for life-threatening conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

The Headlines Now
Extra padding may not be that deadly, according to an attention-grabbing CDC report that pooled data on nearly three million people from all over the world. The analysis found that while extreme obesity shortened lives, people who were just overweight (having a body mass index between 25 and 30) were actually less likely to die than those who were normal weight. The paper was a follow-up report to a groundbreaking 2005 study that reached similar conclusions. This growing body of research makes some experts question whether being overweight is really as unhealthy as previously believed.

But Wait …
The recent CDC study looked at only risk of death—not overall health, says Steven Heymsfield, MD, executive director of Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center. “Living is not really the prize; living well is the prize,” preventive health expert David Katz, MD, told ABC News. And overwhelming evidence shows that overweight people are still more likely than normal-weight people to develop heart disease and diabetes, conditions that reduce quality of life.

It’s important to read between the data. Since people with cancer or other grave illnesses often lose a lot of weight, heavy people can look healthy by comparison. Another explanation: Once serious illness sets in, being overweight may offer a small survival edge. And heavier people may also get earlier or more aggressive medical treatments, which help them live longer.

What It Means for You
This research doesn’t necessarily mean that being overweight is healthy, but it does call for considering weight in the context of overall health. If you’re a little plump but have normal blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, slimming down may not confer a huge health advantage. One certainty, however, if you are a little overweight: You don’t want your eating habits to send you down the path toward obesity.

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