Background: In older people, it is unclear whether obesity relates to mortality, which calls into question its etiologic role in disease and its public health relevance. This apparent lack of relationship in older people could be an artifactual result of their diverse health states.
Methods: We used Cox regression analysis to determine whether the effect of body mass index (BMI) (calculated as weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters) or physical activity on mortality varied with health status in a prospective cohort study of Chinese people 65 years or older enrolled from 1998 to 2000 at all of the 18 Elderly Health Centers of the Hong Kong Government Department of Health. Health status was categorized into 5 morbidity groups using a 12-item index covering illnesses, medications, frailty, and smoking.
Results: After a mean follow-up of 4.1 years, there were 3819 deaths in 54 088 subjects (96.5% successful follow-up). The effect of BMI on mortality varied with baseline health status (P<.001). In the healthiest group, obese people (BMI >/=25) had higher mortality (adjusted hazard ratio [HR], 1.54; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.02-2.33), but in the unhealthiest group they had lower mortality (HR, 0.55; 95% CI, 0.49-0.63) compared with subjects of normal weight. Daily physical activity was associated with lower mortality compared with inactivity in the unhealthiest group (HR, 0.70; 95% CI, 0.61- 0.81) but not in the healthiest group.
Conclusions: In the elderly, the relationship between obesity and mortality varies according to the underlying health status. In those with poor health status, obesity is associated with better outcome, whereas in those with initially good health status, obesity is associated with worse outcome.