Midlife Health and Socioeconomic Consequences of Persistent Overweight Across Early Adulthood

Findings from a National Survey of American Adults (1986-2008)

The “Persistently Overweight”–those who are overweight in high school and rapidly gain weight into midlife–are likely to have no higher education, and, at age 40, have a chronic health problem and receive public assistance, according to a nationwide study.

This analysis examines the link between being overweight in young adulthood and midlife health and socioeconomic status, by looking at data from a school-based survey that has participants self-report height and weight starting as seniors in high school and then periodically thereafter. Relevant to this analysis, the survey’s methodology resulted in 5,233 individuals who were between the ages of 19 and 40 from 1986 to 2008.

Key Findings:

  • There are two distinct patterns of post-high school weight gain.
  • The majority group graduates high school at a normal weight and proceeds to gain steadily until age 35.
  • The “persistently overweight” graduate high school overweight and gain more rapidly over the next 15 years. This group is more likely to be female and, even when controlling for gender, race/ethnicity and geographic region, come from a lower-socioeconomic background.
  • Individuals are less likely to be persistently overweight if they had a higher high school GPA.
  • At age 40, the persistently overweight are three times more likely to report a chronic health problem; 50 percent more likely to be collecting unemployment or welfare; and less likely to have a partner or any higher education.

According to the authors, this analysis demonstrates that early life disadvantage is a “critical factor” in determining one’s weight trajectory. But they believe the study also demonstrates that education and other factors in the school setting can mitigate the risk for obesity, suggesting that supporting socioeconomically disadvantaged kids in school can help fight obesity throughout life. The authors note, although this study does not definitively demonstrate causality, the temporal evidence suggests it.