The relationship between obesity and disability

August 22, 2017 | Press Releases & Announcements

Dr. Jennifer Dowd

Dr. Jennifer Dowd

Dr. Jennifer Dowd, professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy (CUNY SPH), and colleagues utilized data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) to look at the relationship of obesity and disabilities. The findings were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The research team used three periods of the NHANES data to examine functional impairment and activities of daily life impairment, defined as severe and moderate to severe for adults aged 60 and older (n = 16,770). The three periods covered 1988 to 1994 (period 1), 1999 to 2004 (period 2), and 2005 to 2012 (period 3).

Over the first two time periods in the study the likelihood of impairment for obese versus normal weight individuals increased for all outcomes. In period 3, this association remained stable for functional and severe activities of daily life impairment, and decreased for moderate to severe activities of daily life impairment. The fraction of population disability attributable to obesity followed a similar trend.

Prior research on the topic had shown a significant increase in the association between obesity and disability, with disability being part of the cost of longer lifetime exposures to obesity. The trend of an increasing association between obesity and disability has leveled off in more recent years, and is even improving for some measures.

The authors concluded that the findings suggest that public health and policy concerns that obesity would continue to get more disabling over time have not been borne out.

Dr. Dowd explains, “Overall, the study is looking at how the obesity epidemic may affect disability rates over time in the U.S.  It was previously found that the risk of disability associated with obesity had gotten worse over time, possibly due to the cumulative effect of more years of obesity.  Our paper looked at the most recent national data and found that the risk of disability associated with obesity has not continued to get worse and for some measures has improved, which is encouraging news for future disability rates in the U.S.”


Virginia W. Chang, Dawn E. Alley, Jennifer Beam Dowd; Trends in the Relationship Between Obesity and Disability, 1988–2012, American Journal of Epidemiology,