November 13, 2018

Pavela leads UAB team to study association of BMI and mortality

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greg pavela 300 400Greg Pavela, Ph.D.Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in collaboration with researchers at Indiana University-Bloomington, have received an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the association between obesity and longevity and why some people are more susceptible to the health consequences of obesity compared to others.

Greg Pavela, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior in the School of Public Health, will be the principal investigator for UAB.

“The body mass index associated with the lowest risk of mortality is slowly increasing over time,” Pavela said. “The goal of this research is to understand why this is happening and why the association between obesity and mortality appears to be weakening across generations.”

Researchers will test three hypotheses about how changes in BMI may affect the current generation’s lifespan and modify obesity’s effect on lifespan in future generations. The first hypothesis is that discrimination experienced by individuals who are obese may lead to increased stress and, as a result, potentially create health consequences that will increase the risk of mortality. 

The second hypothesis looks at genetic and environmental predispositions for obesity, such as the genetic makeup of one’s parents, one’s mother’s BMI while pregnant or environmental conditions.

“The theory is that factors which influence obesity may affect mortality as well, and if we are to better understand why obesity is associated with mortality, we need to take those factors into account,” Pavela said.

The final hypothesis will test a “mismatch theory,” which suggests that an obese person who is born to an obese mother may experience fewer ill effects of obesity than an obese person who is born to a mother with a normal BMI.

According to Pavela, understanding how and why obesity is associated with reduced longevity and who is most vulnerable to its health risks will help inform public policies and anticipate future population needs.

The study will be funded for four years. Other researchers involved with the study from UAB include Neng Jun Yi, Ph.D., a professor of biostatistics, and Steve Austed, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.