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Open Access Research article

Mortality risk associated with underweight: a census-linked cohort of 31,578 individuals with up to 32 years of follow-up

Lucienne Roh1, Julia Braun1, Arnaud Chiolero23, Matthias Bopp1, Sabine Rohrmann1, David Faeh1* and for the Swiss National Cohort Study Group

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine (ISPM), University of Zurich, Hirschengraben 84, 8001 Zürich, Switzerland

2 Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine (IUMSP), Lausanne University Hospital, Lausanne, Switzerland

3 Observatoire valaisan de la santé (OVS), Sion, Switzerland

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BMC Public Health 2014, 14:371  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-371

Published: 16 April 2014

Abstract

Background

In contrast to obesity, information on the health risks of underweight is sparse. We examined the long-term association between underweight and mortality by considering factors possibly influencing this relationship.

Methods

We included 31,578 individuals aged 25–74 years, who participated in population based health studies between 1977 and 1993 and were followed-up for survival until 2008 by record linkage with the Swiss National Cohort (SNC). Body Mass Index (BMI) was calculated from measured (53% of study population) or self-reported height and weight. Underweight was defined as BMI < 18.5 kg/m2. Cox regression models were used to determine mortality Hazard Ratios (HR) of underweight vs. normal weight (BMI 18.5- < 25.0 kg/m2). Covariates were study, sex, smoking, healthy eating proxy, sports frequency, and educational level.

Results

Underweight individuals represented 3.0% of the total study population (n = 945), and were mostly women (89.9%). Compared to normal weight, underweight was associated with increased all-cause mortality (HR: 1.37; 95% CI: 1.14-1.65). Increased risk was apparent in both sexes, regardless of smoking status, and mainly driven by excess death from external causes (HR: 3.18; 1.96-5.17), but not cancer, cardiovascular or respiratory diseases. The HR were 1.16 (0.88-1.53) in studies with measured BMI and 1.59 (1.24-2.05) with self-reported BMI.

Conclusions

The increased risk of dying of underweight people was mainly due to an increased mortality risk from external causes. Using self-reported BMI may lead to an overestimation of mortality risk associated with underweight.

Keywords:
Underweight; Body mass index; Mortality risk; Self-reports; Risk overestimation; Switzerland