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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

People with depression and anxiety at greater risk of obesity

Embargoed until 01 August 2009

Having a common mental health problem such as anxiety or depression puts you at greater risk of obesity in old age, according to a new study.

Researchers studied a group of 10,166 civil servants aged between 35 and 55. Each person was given a medical examination where their weight and height was measured to determine obesity. Each person also completed a General Health Questionnaire, to check for symptoms of anxiety and depression. These tests were repeated another three times over a period of 19 years. The findings are published in the August issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

The researchers found that 6% of all people in the group were obese at the age of 40. There was no difference in levels of obesity between those people who had mental health disorders and those who didn’t. However, there was a clear difference when people reached the age of 70. At this age, 35% of people who had common mental health disorders were obese compared to 27% of people who did not.

Overall, the odds of being obese was 1.12 times higher for people with common mental health disorders than for others. The risk of being obese did not vary by people’s gender, ethnic background or socio-economic status.

The researchers put forward several explanations for their findings. First, common mental health problems can be a cause of obesity. They can be associated with both under- and over-eating, and people with mental health problems are less likely to exercise. Some medications for depression can also have side-effects that may result in weight gain or weight gain.

Second, people who are obese may have a poor self-body image and therefore be at greater risk of developing mental health problems. This is particularly true in societies where being overweight is stigmatised and seen negatively.

Third, as people get older they may start experiencing health problems that cause them to both put on weight and become more depressed or anxious.

Lead researcher Dr Mika Kivimäki, of University College London, said: “This study emphasises the role of common mental disorders in the risk of obesity at older ages. There is a need for more detailed clinical guidelines to help doctors prevent and treat obesity among adults with mental health disorders, and promote better mental health among older people who are obese.”

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Nevins
Press & Social Media Officer
Telephone: 020 3701 2543
Claire McLoughlin
Media & Communications Manager 
Telephone: 020 3701 2544
Out of hours contact number: 07860 755896



Kivimäki M, Batty GD, Singh-Manoux A, Nabi H, Sabia S, Tabak AG, Akbaraly TN, Vahtera J, Marmot MG and Jokela M (2009) Association between common mental disorder and obesity over the adult life course, British Journal of Psychiatry, 195: 149-155


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