Being severely overweight in adolescence isn’t just bad for health--it also damages a young person’s social and economic potential, according to a new study.
The consequences are particularly dire for women, researchers report in today’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine: Overweight women complete about half a year less school, are 20% less likely to get married and earn $6,710 less per year than their slimmer counterparts.
Obese women also have rates of household poverty 10% higher than those of women who are not overweight, the study said.
The researchers found that overweight men were 11% less likely to be married than thinner men but suffer few adverse economic consequences.
The study identified 10,039 young people who were between the ages of 16 to 24 in 1981 and followed them over a seven-year period. In 1981, 370 of those subjects were overweight. The researchers, from Harvard University and the New England Medical Center, defined overweight as having a body weight greater than 95% of youth of the same age, sex and height.
The average overweight woman in the study was 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 200 pounds; the average overweight man was 5 feet 9 and weighed 225 pounds.
For purposes of comparison, the study also tracked other young adults with chronic conditions other than obesity, including asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and various birth defects. In contrast to the overweight group, those adolescents did not differ socially or economically from people who were not overweight during the survey.
Co-author Steven L. Gortmaker of the Harvard School of Public Health suggested that the consequences described in the study could be a result of bias.
“There’s real evidence that there’s a fair amount of discrimination against people who are overweight,” Gortmaker said. The article concluded that “our data suggest that the extension of (the Americans with Disabilities Act) to include overweight persons should be considered.”
Although obesity and low socioeconomic status have been linked, it is not clear which causes which, according to an editorial in the journal.
The Boston researchers, however, concluded that obesity is one of the factors that determines socioeconomic status in the United States, at least for women.