Comfort Eating and All-Cause Mortality in the US Health and Retirement Study

Int J Behav Med. 2018 Aug;25(4):473-478. doi: 10.1007/s12529-017-9706-8.


Purpose: Comfort eating is a prevalent behavior. Prior research shows that comfort eating is associated with reduced stress responses and increased metabolic risk across adolescence, young adulthood, and middle adulthood. The purpose of the current research was to test if comfort eating prospectively predicted all-cause mortality in older adulthood.

Method: The US Health and Retirement Study is an ongoing, nationally representative, longitudinal study of older adults. The final sample for the present study (N = 1445) included participants randomly selected to report how often they comfort ate. Comfort eating data were collected in 2008 and all-cause mortality data were collected in 2014. Participants also reported how often they consumed high-fat/sugar food as well as their height and weight in 2008.

Results: For each 1-unit increase in comfort eating, the expected odds of all-cause mortality (n = 255 deceased) decreased by 14%, OR = 0.86, p = 0.048, 95% CI [0.74, 0.99]. This analysis statistically accounted for other predictors of mortality in the sample including age, biological sex, race, highest educational degree attained, moderate and vigorous exercise, smoking, and cumulative illness. High-fat/sugar intake did not mediate (or diminish) the association but body mass index did.

Conclusion: Comfort eating-irrespective of consuming high-fat/sugar food-may be associated with reduced mortality in older adults because it may promote greater body mass, and greater body mass is associated with lower risk of mortality in nationally representative samples. Interventionists might consider both beneficial and detrimental aspects of comfort eating across the lifespan.

Keywords: Body mass index; High-fat/sugar food; Older adults; Stress.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Body Mass Index
  • Eating / psychology*
  • Exercise
  • Feeding Behavior / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mortality
  • Retirement