Come On!

02.26.13

No, Overweight People Don't Live Longer

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Remember that study about how overweight people lived longer?

It was totally wrong, concludes a panel of professors at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“When I read the article I was somewhat taken aback. I wondered if I should send a ‘never mind’ note to all the people I’d taught about the risks of excess fat,” said Jeffrey S. Flier, dean of the Faculty of Medicine, at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and an authority on the biology of obesity and diabetes.

He wasn’t alone. Many others were perplexed by the findings gathered byCenters for Disease Control (CDC) epidemiologist Katharine Flegal, which contradict a preponderance of research indicating that there is a direct correlation between the risk of mortality and being overweight once factors such as lower weight from cigarette smoking, chronic disease, and wasting from frailty in the elderly are taken into account.

To clear up the confusion, Flier worked with Julio Frenk, dean of theHarvard School of Public Health (HSPH), to convene a panel of experts at HSPH on Feb. 20 to discuss the findings with the HMS and HSPH communities. Flegal, a senior scientist at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, was invited to the event, but did not attend.

“We live in an era of near-ubiquitous access to information,” Frenk said, “but the University has an important role to play in providing context and analysis to help people judge the value of information they are consuming, especially when there are equivocal or controversial findings.”

The panelists evaluated Flegal’s findings and pointed out a number of methodological errors in the study that they said resulted in the artificial appearance of a protective benefit in being overweight or mildly obese.

“When something sounds too good to be true, it’s usually not true,” said Frank Hu, HSPH professor of nutrition and epidemiology and HMS professor of medicine.