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Social support and trajectories of body mass index and waist to hip ratio from mid-adulthood to old age
  1. Urszula Tymoszuk1,
  2. Meena Kumari1,2,
  3. Rachel Batterham3,4,5,
  4. Mai Stafford6
  1. 1 Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, UK
  2. 2 Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), University of Essex, Colchester, UK
  3. 3 Department of Medicine, Centre for Obesity Research, Rayne Institute, University College London, London, UK
  4. 4 University College London Hospital (UCLH) Bariatric Centre for Weight Management and Metabolic Surgery, London, UK
  5. 5 National Institute of Health Research, UCLH Biomedical Research Centre, London, UK
  6. 6 MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL, UCL, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Urszula Tymoszuk, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UK; urszula.tymoszuk.12{at}


Background Although social networks’ influence on obesity has been increasingly recognised, it remains unclear if different dimensions of social support, for example, emotional or practical support, received from one’s closest relationship are associated with weight outcomes over mid-life and old age.

Methods Using linear mixed models we examined whether person-level body mass index (BMI) and waist to hip ratio (WHR) trajectories vary according to levels of emotional, practical and negative aspects of social support in a large UK-based cohort of healthy civil servant workers (n=5460) with objectively measured anthropometry data on five occasions over two decades (1989–1990 to 2012–2013).

Results We found that gender modified the associations, with more consistent patterns found in men. In men, high negative aspects of support compared with low were consistently associated with steeper increase in BMI (0.024, 95% CI 0.001 to 0.047 kg/m2) and WHR (0.00020, 95% CI −0.00001 to 0.00040) after adjustment for demographic and socioeconomic covariates, mental health, health behaviours and long-standing illness. We found that low emotional support, compared with high, was associated with steeper BMI gain in men (0.024, 95% CI 0.0001 to 0.047 kg/m2).

Conclusions Low levels of negative aspects of the relationships with the closest person and high levels of emotional support may be protective against weight gain over time, particularly in men. If replicated in other studies, these results would suggest that the quality of social support in close relationships has been an overlooked risk factor for weight gain in an ageing population.

  • ageing
  • obesity
  • psychosocial factors
  • social and life-course epidemiology
  • cohort studies

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  • Contributors Study design and critical input into the manuscript: MS, UT, MK, RB. Data analyses: UT, MS. Manuscript preparation: UT.

  • Funding The UK Medical Research Council (MR/K013351/1; G0902037), British Heart Foundation (RG/13/2/30098) and the US National Institutes of Health (R01HL36310, R01AG013196) have supported the collection of data in the Whitehall II study. UT was supported by the CRUCIBLE PhD stipend. MK’s time on this manuscript was partially supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (RES-596-28-0001). RB is supported by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), Sir Jules Thorn Trust, Stoneygate Trust, Robert Luff Foundation and Rosetrees Trust. MS was supported by UK Medical Research Council (Grant MRC_MC_UU_12019/5).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Obtained.

  • Ethics approval The study was approved by the Joint UCL/UCLH Committees on the Ethics of Human Research (Committee Alpha).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement Whitehall II data, protocols and other metadata are available to bona fide researchers for research purposes. Please refer to the Whitehall II data sharing policy at