A new study from the UK suggests it is never too late for adults to lose weight. No matter when in adulthood it happens and even if the weight goes back on again, it can still have a long-term beneficial effect on the heart and cardiovascular system.

To arrive at their findings – which they report in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology – a team led by John Deanfield, professor of cardiology at University College London (UCL), examined the effect of lifelong patterns of weight change on cardiovascular risk factors in over 1,200 British men and women followed since birth in 1946.

As revealed in other studies, they found that the longer individuals carried too much body fat (adiposity) in adulthood, the greater their chances of developing cardiovascular problems later in life. These include raised systolic blood pressure, increased risk of diabetes, and increased thickness of the wall of the carotid artery – a predictor of heart disease and stroke.

Prof. Deanfield, who is also Director of the National Centre for Cardiovascular Prevention and Outcomes at UCL, says:

“Our study is unique because it followed individuals for such a long time, more than 60 years, and allowed us to assess the effect of modest, real-life changes in adiposity.”

However, for the first time, the study also shows that individuals who drop in BMI category at any time in adulthood – even if they put the weight back on later – can reduce their long-term risk of cardiovascular problems.

“Our findings suggest that losing weight at any age can result in long-term cardiovascular health benefits, and support public health strategies and lifestyle modifications that help individuals who are overweight or obese to lose weight at all ages,” notes Prof. Deanfield.

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New research finds that a reduction in BMI at any age confers heart benefits.

A drop in BMI category is, for instance, from overweight to normal or from obese to overweight.

BMI stands for Body Mass Index, a measure that is widely used to define overweight and obesity. The World Health Organization (WHO) have been using it as the standard for recording obesity statistics since the early 1980s. BMI is equal to a person’s weight in kilograms divided by their height in meters squared.

For adults:

  • BMI between 18.5 and 25 is classed as normal or healthy weight.
  • BMI between 25 and 30 is classed as overweight.
  • BMI between 30 and 40 is classed as obese.
  • BMI over 40 is classed as very obese or “morbidly obese.”

For the study, the team examined data on 1,273 men and women who took part in the UK Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD).

They sorted the participants according to BMI category – normal weight, overweight or obese – in childhood and then at age 36, 43, 53 and 60-64 years.

They also categorized individuals’ cardiovascular risk, using the measured thickness of each participant’s carotid artery (known as the cIMT or carotid intima media thickness, this measure is a surrogate marker for cardiovascular events).

From relating BMI to cIMT, they assessed the effect of lifetime excess body fat or adiposity on cardiovascular risk.

In an accompanying commentary, Elizabeth Cespedes and Frank Hu, of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, MA, say it is encouraging that even a temporary loss of weight may have cardiovascular benefits.

However, they point out that only 2% of the study participants managed to sustain their weight loss in adulthood. This emphasizes the importance of helping people keep to a healthy weight once they have shed their excess pounds, they write, and add:

Improvements in diet and increases in physical activity are crucial levers of long-term weight maintenance and prevention of weight gain in middle-age and early adulthood.”

Through lifestyle changes like increasing physical activity, people who are overweight can do a lot more to improve their health than normal weight people, they say, adding that this study confirms the importance of “public health policies that enable lifestyle changes to achieve and, especially, to maintain a healthy BMI.”

“Ideally, future research will address long-term patterns of intentional versus unintentional weight loss, the means to achieve weight loss, and the weight loss maintenance necessary to reduce cardiovascular endpoints,” they note.

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently reported on a French study that found starting exercise at 40 has the same heart benefits as earlier training. The researchers found that despite the effect of age, the heart – even at age 40 – is still amenable to beneficial change as a result of endurance training.