Stress, Traumatic Events May Increase Obesity Risk in Women

Experiencing a traumatic event could significantly increase obesity risk.

While many factors can increase the risk of obesity—such as physical activity and eating habits—new findings suggest traumatic events could also be involved.

Preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Scientific Sessions 2017 showed that women who experienced traumatic life events or several negative events had a higher risk of developing obesity compared with women who did not experience these events.

“Little is known about how negative and traumatic life events affect obesity in women. We know that stress affects behavior, including whether people under- or overeat, as well as neuro-hormonal activity by in part increasing cortisol production, which is related to weight gain,” said study senior author Michelle A. Albert, MD, MPH.

While the condition is preventable, the AHA estimates that 70% of adults are overweight or obese. Women are known to live longer than men and may have a higher risk of obesity and related health events, according to the authors.

Included in the study were 21,904 middle-aged and older women. The authors focused on the potential link between life events and obesity, defined as a body mass index (BMI) or 30-kg/m2 and higher. Among the patients in the study, 23% were obese.

The investigators analyzed the effects of 2 types of stress: traumatic events, such as the death of a child or experiencing a physical attack, and negative events within the previous 5 years, such as unemployment or being burglarized.

Notably, women who experienced more than 1 traumatic event were 11 times more likely to be obese compared with those who did not experience the event, according to the study.

Additionally, the authors found that a higher number of negative life events corresponded with a 36% increased risk of obesity compared with no negative events, according to the study.

Patients who participated in higher levels of physical activity were observed to have a stronger link between stress and obesity; however, the authors note that the underlying reason for this is unknown.

“Our findings suggest that psychological stress in the form of negative and traumatic life events might represent an important risk factor for weight changes and, therefore, we should consider including assessment and treatment of psychosocial stress in approaches to weight management,” Dr Albert said.

Since the study examined stressful events and obesity at 1 point in time, the authors said future studies should follow patients for a longer period of time after several life events have occurred, according to the study.

“This is important work because women are living longer and are more at risk for chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease,” Dr Albert said. “The potential public health impact is large, as obesity is related to increased risks of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and cancer, and contributes to spiraling healthcare costs.”