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December 13, 2007

Obesity Leads to More Hospital Admissions, Longer Stays

Obese adults are admitted to the hospital more frequently and for more days than adults who are normal weight, finds a new study that looks at how being obese leads to a need for more health care services.

The study also finds that duration of obesity—how long an adult has been obese—has a direct impact on length of hospitalization.

“Though there doesn’t seem to be any discrete cutoff point for what is ‘too long’ to be obese, the basic story is that the longer a person has been obese, the more hospital resources they will need,” said lead study author and sociologist Markus Schafer. “A somewhat surprising result in our study was the fact that the length of time a person has been obese makes a much bigger impact than how severe the obesity actually is.”

The study appears in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, a peer-reviewed scientific publication of the American Sociological Association.

Schafer, a medical sociologist at the Center on Aging and the Life Course at Purdue University, and a colleague evaluated 4,574 adults, ages 41 and older, who took part in a national survey in three waves over 20 years, beginning in 1971. In the first wave, researchers measured participants’ body mass index (BMI) and classified those having a BMI of 30 and above as obese. At later waves, participants were asked about their weight at ages 25, 40, and 65 and about any hospital admissions they had had since the last interview.

On average, obese adults had about 3.22 hospital stays in a 20-year period compared with 2.47 stays for the normal-weight adults, representing a 30-percent greater likelihood of hospitalization. Length of hospital stays averaged 10.96 days for obese adults compared with 9.4 days for those of normal weight.

The study found that higher disease prevalence was a major reason why obese adults had more hospitalizations. For example, whereas 21 percent of normal-weight participants had hypertension, 46 percent of the obese adults suffered from the condition, which helped explain the association between BMI and hospital admission.

“We found that it was especially problematic when subjects had been obese since young adulthood and carried excess weight with them into middle and late adulthood,” Schafer said. “So it seems that early adulthood is a crucial time for addressing weight problems, and will quite likely pay dividends in reducing healthcare consumption when these adults are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s.”

Susan Curry, PhD, director of the Health Research and Policy Centers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who is familiar with the study, agreed that preventing obesity through adulthood is crucial.

“If you look closely at their models, being obese at age 25 did not have a significant association with hospitalization, and yet chronic obesity did,” she said. “This suggests that many individuals become obese after age 25, hence the need to focus on obesity prevention in health care and in public health strategies.”

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The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is the quarterly journal of the American Sociological Association. Contact Sujata Sinha, Media Relations Officer at (202) 247-9871or

Schafer, M. H., and K. F. Ferraro. 2007. Obesity and hospitalization over the adult life course: Does duration of exposure increase use? Journal of Health and Social Behavior 48(4):434-449.

Interviews: Markus Schafer at


About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.