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ScaleMiddle-Age Spread can be a Killer

Trying to reduce or keep your weight down? Here's some incentive from the world of medicine:

A study to look at the effects of weight on longevity concludes that thinner is definitely better at almost all ages, including middle-age and beyond. The study found that being too heavy seems to shorten life expectancy up to about age 75. After that, being big doesn't seem to make much difference, unless people are really obese.

This may help settle one controversy among diet experts — whether it's safe to put on a few pounds as we age. Until recently, it was assumed that a little weight gain was nothing to worry about, but guidelines put out by the US Department of Agriculture in 1995 came down against middle-aged spread. They said people in their 60s shouldn't weigh any more than those in their 30s.

The new study backs the USDA's stand on this. It suggests that staying trim — even thin — is healthiest as people go through their 40s, 50s and 60s.

The study was based on American Cancer Society data on 324,135 men and women when were enrolled in 1960, and then followed up in 1972. It was published in an issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, along with an editorial urging doctors not to push people too hard to lose weight.

The study found that the people who live longest have body mass indexes between 19 and 22, which is quite thin. It is about equal to — or a little under — the 1983 Metropolitan Life Insurance table of ideal weights.

Body mass index, or BMI, is quickly becoming the standard way of talking about obesity, since it is an easy way to compare the fatness or people of different heights. BMI is body weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared.

A 5-foot-4, 118-pound woman has a BMI of 20. Fashion models generally have BMIs around 18.

Mortality seemed to increase significantly when people's BMIs reached 25, and it went even more sharply when BMIs were over 30. A 5-foot-4, 145-pound woman has a BMI of 25. At 175 pounds, she has a BMI of 30. Figures from federal surveys show that 59 percent of American men and 49 percent of women now have BMIs over 25.

Experts believe that weight loss eases high blood pressure and diabetes, but it's never been proven that those who take it off are as healthy as people who never put it on in the first place.

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