Public Release: 

UK population is becoming overweight and obese at younger ages


Children born since the 1980s are two to three times more likely than older generations to be overweight or obese by the age of 10, according to new research published in PLOS Medicine. The study, conducted by researchers from CLOSER, a consortium of UK longitudinal studies, characterized population shifts in body mass index (BMI) using data from more than 56,000 people born in Britain from 1946 to 2001.

The findings will be relevant to policymakers and health care professionals, who predict the obesity epidemic will cost the UK's National Health Service (NHS) £22.9 billion per year by 2020. Dr William Johnson, MRC Human Nutrition Research at the University of Cambridge, and Professor Rebecca Hardy and colleagues at the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing and the Institute of Child Health at UCL analyzed longitudinal data from individuals in five birth cohorts. The data revealed that most of the rise in BMI has been a result of increases at the upper end of the BMI distribution. Even so, across the 1946, 1958, and 1970 cohorts, the age at which the median adults entered the overweight range decreased from 41 to 33 to 30 years in males and 48 to 44 to 41 years in females. While childhood obesity is more prevalent among younger generations, the majority of today's children are still a normal weight.

The findings describe the changing pattern of age-related progression of overweight and obesity from early childhood in white populations born in the UK. The results may not be generalizable to other populations, which have distinct genetic predispositions, environmental exposures and access to health care, though studies from diverse settings have suggested similar shifts. The authors state, "[o]ur results demonstrate how younger generations are likely to accumulate greater exposure to overweight or obesity throughout their lives and, thus, increased risk for chronic health conditions such as coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus. In the absence of effective intervention, overweight and obesity will have severe public health consequences in decades to come."


Research Article

Funding: This project is part of a collaborative research programme entitled "Cohorts and Longitudinal Studies Enhancement Resources" (CLOSER). This programme is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant reference: ES/K000357/1). Each of the studies has received their own funding to collect the data used in the present paper; this information is available from the study websites and/ or cohort profiles. The UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust (grant reference: 102215/2/13/2) and the University of Bristol provide core support for the 1991 ALSPAC study. The UK Medical Research Council (grant reference: MC_UU_12019/1) provides core support for the 1946 NSHD study. The Economic and Social Research Council provides core support for the 1958 NCDS, 1970 BCS, and 2001 MCS studies. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Citation: Johnson W, Li L, Kuh D, Hardy R (2015) How Has the Age-Related Process of Overweight or Obesity Development Changed over Time? Co-ordinated Analyses of Individual Participant Data from Five United Kingdom Birth Cohorts. PLoS Med 12(5): e1001828. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001828

Author Affiliations:

Medical Research Council Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at University College London, London, United Kingdom University College London Institute of Child Health, London, United Kingdom



Professor Rebecca Hardy Tel: 0207 670 5713

Meghan Rainsberry
Communications Manager
Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS),
Cohort and Longitudinal Studies Enhancement Resources (CLOSER)
Tel: 020 7612 6530

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