Obesity is considered a major cause of premature mortality and a potential threat to the longstanding secular decline in mortality in the United States. We measure relative and attributable risks associated with obesity among middle-aged adults using data from the Health and Retirement Study (1992-2004). Although class II/III obesity (BMI ≥ 35.0 kg/m2) increases mortality by 40% in females and 62% in males compared with normal BMI (BMI = 18.5-24.9), class I obesity (BMI = 30.0-34.9) and being overweight (BMI = 25.0-29.9) are not associated with excess mortality. With respect to attributable mortality, class II/III obesity (BMI ≥ 35.0) is responsible for approximately 4% of deaths among females and 3% of deaths among males. Obesity is often compared with cigarette smoking as a major source of avoidable mortality. Smoking-attributable mortality is much larger in this cohort: about 36% in females and 50% in males. Results are robust to confounding by preexisting diseases, multiple dimensions of socioeconomic status (SES), smoking, and other correlates. These findings challenge the viewpoint that obesity will stem the long-term secular decline in U.S. mortality.
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