The changing relationship of obesity and disability, 1988-2004

JAMA. 2007 Nov 7;298(17):2020-7. doi: 10.1001/jama.298.17.2020.


Context: Recent studies suggest that the obese population may have been growing healthier since the 1960s, as indicated by a decrease in mortality and cardiovascular risk factors. However, whether these improvements have conferred decreased risk for disability is unknown. The obese population may be living longer with better-controlled risk factors but paradoxically experiencing more disability.

Objective: To determine whether the association between obesity and disability has changed over time.

Design, setting, and participants: Adults aged 60 years and older (N = 9928) with measured body mass index from 2 waves of the nationally representative National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES III [1988-1994] and NHANES 1999-2004).

Main outcome measures: Reports of much difficulty or inability to perform tasks in 2 disability domains: functional limitations (walking one-fourth mile, walking up 10 steps, stooping, lifting 10 lb, walking between rooms, and standing from an armless chair) and activities of daily living (ADL) limitations (transferring, eating, and dressing).

Results: Among obese individuals, the prevalence of functional impairment increased 5.4% (from 36.8%-42.2%; P = .03) between the 2 surveys, and ADL impairment did not change. At time 1 (1988-1994), the odds of functional impairment for obese individuals were 1.78 times greater than for normal-weight individuals (95% confidence interval [CI], 1.47-2.16). At time 2 (1999-2004), this odds ratio increased to 2.75 (95% CI, 2.39-3.17), because the odds of functional impairment increased by 43% (OR 1.43; 95% CI, 1.18-1.75) among obese individuals during this period, but did not change among nonobese individuals. With respect to ADL impairment, odds for obese individuals were not significantly greater than for individuals with normal weight (OR, 1.31; 95% CI, 0.92-1.88) at time 1, but increased to 2.05 (95% CI, 1.45-2.88) at time 2. This was because the odds of ADL impairment did not change for obese individuals but decreased by 34% among nonobese individuals (OR, 0.66; 95% CI, 0.50-0.88).

Conclusions: Recent cardiovascular improvements have not been accompanied by reduced disability within the obese older population. Rather, obese participants surveyed during 1999-2004 were more likely to report functional impairments than obese participants surveyed during 1988-1994, and reductions in ADL impairment observed for nonobese older individuals did not occur in those who were obese. Over time, declines in obesity-related mortality, along with a younger age at onset of obesity, could lead to an increased burden of disability within the obese older population.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living*
  • Body Mass Index
  • Cost of Illness*
  • Disability Evaluation
  • Disabled Persons / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Lifting
  • Middle Aged
  • Nutrition Surveys
  • Obesity* / epidemiology
  • Obesity* / physiopathology
  • Risk
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Walking