Background: In contrast to obesity, information on the health risks of underweight is sparse. We examined the long-term association between underweight and mortality by considering factors possibly influencing this relationship.
Methods: We included 31,578 individuals aged 25-74 years, who participated in population based health studies between 1977 and 1993 and were followed-up for survival until 2008 by record linkage with the Swiss National Cohort (SNC). Body Mass Index (BMI) was calculated from measured (53% of study population) or self-reported height and weight. Underweight was defined as BMI < 18.5 kg/m2. Cox regression models were used to determine mortality Hazard Ratios (HR) of underweight vs. normal weight (BMI 18.5- < 25.0 kg/m2). Covariates were study, sex, smoking, healthy eating proxy, sports frequency, and educational level.
Results: Underweight individuals represented 3.0% of the total study population (n = 945), and were mostly women (89.9%). Compared to normal weight, underweight was associated with increased all-cause mortality (HR: 1.37; 95% CI: 1.14-1.65). Increased risk was apparent in both sexes, regardless of smoking status, and mainly driven by excess death from external causes (HR: 3.18; 1.96-5.17), but not cancer, cardiovascular or respiratory diseases. The HR were 1.16 (0.88-1.53) in studies with measured BMI and 1.59 (1.24-2.05) with self-reported BMI.
Conclusions: The increased risk of dying of underweight people was mainly due to an increased mortality risk from external causes. Using self-reported BMI may lead to an overestimation of mortality risk associated with underweight.