The obesity paradox and incident cardiovascular disease: A population-based study

Virginia W, Chang, Kenneth M. Langa, David Weir, Theodore J. Iwashyna

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Prior work suggests that obesity may confer a survival advantage among persons with cardiovascular disease (CVD). This obesity “paradox” is frequently studied in the context of prevalent disease, a stage in the disease process when confounding from illness-related weight loss and selective survival are especially problematic. Our objective was to examine the association of obesity with mortality among persons with incident CVD, where biases are potentially reduced, and to compare these findings with those based on prevalent disease. Methods: We used data from the Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing, nationally representative longitudinal survey of U.S. adults age 50 years and older initiated in 1992 and linked to Medicare claims. Cox proportional hazard models were used to estimate the association between weight status and mortality among persons with specific CVD diagnoses. CVD diagnoses were established by self-reported survey data as well as Medicare claims. Prevalent disease models used concurrent weight status, and incident disease models used pre-diagnosis weight status. Results: We examined myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, stroke, and ischemic heart disease. A strong and significant obesity paradox was consistently observed in prevalent disease models (hazard of death 18–36% lower for obese class I relative to normal weight), replicating prior findings. However, in incident disease models of the same conditions in the same dataset, there was no evidence of this survival benefit. Findings from models using survey- vs. claims-based diagnoses were largely consistent. Conclusion: We observed an obesity paradox in prevalent CVD, replicating prior findings in a population-based sample with longer-term follow-up. In incident CVD, however, we did not find evidence of a survival advantage for obesity. Our findings do not offer support for reevaluating clinical and public health guidelines in pursuit of a potential obesity paradox.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0188636
JournalPloS one
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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