PHILADELPHIA – Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine report that older adults today are much more likely to suffer from disability than those 10 years ago.  This research – the first to track effects of obesity on disability over time – appears in the November 7th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Obesity is more hazardous to the health of the elderly than we previously suspected,” says Dawn Alley, PhD, lead author, and Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “For an older person, suffering from obesity means they are much less likely to be able to walk to the front door or pick up a bag of groceries.” 

The study reveals that obesity, which has become more common among older Americans, is having an increasingly profound impact on their day-to-day activities and overall health. By comparing health data from 1988-1994 to data from 1999-2004, the researchers found that the odds of suffering from functional impairment have increased 43 percent among obese adults age 60 years and older.  This means they are less able to do things like walk a quarter of a mile, climb 10 steps, pick up a 10-pound weight, and bend over.

“We believe that two factors are likely contributing to the rise in disability among older, obese people,” says Virginia Chang, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Penn; Attending Physician, Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center; and senior study author.  “First, people are potentially living longer with their obesity due to improved medical care, and second, people are becoming obese at younger ages than in the past.  In both instances, people are living with obesity for longer periods of time, which increases the potential for disability.”

The study evaluated health survey data from 9,928 Americans age 60 years and over from the National Heath and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) conducted from 1988 to 1994 and from 1999 to 2004. Researchers estimated the risk of functional and activities of daily living (ADL) impairment - the inability to move from a bed, dress, or eat - for normal weight, overweight, and obese populations for both time periods, and evaluated trends in the relationship between obesity and disability over time. Results revealed that obesity increased by 8.2% among the population over 60 during this time period, and that the disability gap between obese and non-obese groups widened.   

Researchers also found that obese people are not benefiting from some of the health improvements that the rest of the population is experiencing. For example, although the odds of ADL impairment decreased by 34 percent among the general population, no such improvements were seen in the obese population.

Other recent studies have suggested that obese populations have actually become healthier since the 1960s. While other obesity-related risk factors – such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol – have declined, this new research suggests that quality of life for obese older people may be deteriorating.

“Preventing disability should be another motivation for health care providers, policymakers and the public to take obesity seriously in the elderly population.  Spending time and resources to prevent obesity now may reduce the need to treat disabilities later,” says Dr. Alley.

The study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars Program and by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.




PENN Medicine is a $3.5 billion enterprise dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. PENN Medicine consists of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Penn's School of Medicine is currently ranked #3 in the nation in U.S.News & World Report's survey of top research-oriented medical schools; and, according to most recent data from the National Institutes of Health, received over $379 million in NIH research funds in the 2006 fiscal year. Supporting 1,400 fulltime faculty and 700 students, the School of Medicine is recognized worldwide for its superior education and training of the next generation of physician-scientists and leaders of academic medicine.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System includes three hospitals — its flagship hospital, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, rated one of the nation’s “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S.News & World Report; Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation's first hospital; and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center — a faculty practice plan; a primary-care provider network; two multispecialty satellite facilities; and home care and hospice.



Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $7.8 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report’s survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $405 million awarded in the 2017 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center — which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report — Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital – the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, a leading provider of highly skilled and compassionate behavioral healthcare.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2017, Penn Medicine provided $500 million to benefit our community.

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