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New study: A few extra pounds raises death risk

Lugging around a few extra pounds? One of the largest studies to look at health and weight finds that you don't have to be obese to raise your risk of premature death. Merely being overweight carries some risk, too.

Obesity increases the risk of death from heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. But whether being merely overweight contributes to an early death as well has been uncertain and controversial. Some research has suggested being a little pudgy has little effect or can even be a good thing.

The latest research involving about 1.5 million people concluded that healthy white adults who were overweight were 13 percent more likely to die during the time they were followed in the study than those whose weight was in an ideal range.

"Having a little extra meat on your bones - if that meat happens to be fat - is harmful, not beneficial," said Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society, senior author of the study.

The study's conclusions, published in today's New England Journal of Medicine, are similar to three other large studies, said the lead author, Amy Berrington of the National Cancer Institute.

"Now there's really a very large body of evidence which supports the finding that being overweight is associated with a small increased risk of death," Berrington said.

For their government-funded analysis, the researchers pooled 19 long-term studies of mostly white adults. They used each person's body mass index - a measure of height and weight - and checked to see who died during the follow-up periods, which ranged from five to 28 years.

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They focused on people who were healthy at the beginning of the studies, excluding smokers and those with heart disease or cancer because those affect death rates and researchers wanted to see the impact of weight alone.

The lowest death rate for healthy women who had never smoked was in the high end of the ideal body mass index range - between 22.5 and 24.9. Compared with that group, those who were overweight had an increased risk of death of 13 percent. The increased risk ranged from 44 to 88 percent for those who were obese. The morbidly obese were 21/2 times more likely to die prematurely. The results for men were similar.

Most of the participants in the studies were white, so the research focused on them. Results may be different in other ethnic and racial groups, Berrington said.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese. Overweight begins at a BMI measurement of 25, obese at 30 and morbidly obese at 40. A 5-foot-6 person is considered overweight at 155 pounds, obese at 186 pounds and morbidly obese at 248 pounds.

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