Background: Obesity is increasing globally across all population groups. Limited data are available on how obesity patterns differ across countries.
Objective: To document the prevalence of obesity and related health conditions for Europeans aged 50 years and older, and to estimate the association between obesity and health outcomes across 10 European countries.
Methods: Data were obtained from the 2004 Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe, a cross-national survey of 22,777 Continental Europeans over the age of 50 years. The health outcomes included self-reported health, disability, doctor-diagnosed chronic health conditions and depression. Multivariate regression analysis was used to predict health outcomes across weight classes (defined by body mass index [BMI] from self-reported weight and height) in the pooled sample and individually in each country.
Results: The prevalence of obesity (BMI >or=30) ranged from 12.8% in Sweden to 20.2% in Spain for men and from 12.3% in Switzerland to 25.6% in Spain for women. Adjusting for compositional differences across countries changed little in the observed large heterogeneity in obesity rates throughout Europe. Compared with normal weight individuals, men and women with greater BMI had significantly higher risks for all chronic health conditions examined except heart disease in overweight men. Depression was linked to obesity in women only. Particularly pronounced risks of impaired health and chronic health conditions were found among severely obese people. The effects of obesity on health did not vary significantly across countries.
Conclusions: Cross-country differences in the prevalence of obesity in older Europeans are substantial and exceed socio-demographic differentials in excessive body weight. Obesity is associated with significantly poorer health outcomes among Europeans aged 50 years and over, with effects similar across countries. Large heterogeneity in obesity throughout Europe should be investigated further to identify areas for effective public policy.