Estimating the influence of body mass index (BMI) on mortality using offspring BMI as an instrumental variable

Elina Hypponen*, David J Carslake, Diane J Berry, Chris Power, George Davey Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Objective High body mass index (BMI) is an important predictor of mortality but estimating underlying causality is hampered by confounding and pre-existing disease. Here we use information from the offspring to approximate parental BMIs, with an aim to avoid biased estimation of mortality risk caused by reverse causality. Methods The analyses were based on information on 9 674 offspring-mother, and 9 096 offspring-father pairs obtained from the 1958 British birth cohort. Parental BMI - mortality associations were analysed using conventional methods, and using offspring BMI as a proxy, or instrument, for their parents’ BMI. Results In the conventional analysis, associations between parental BMI and all-cause mortality were U-shaped (Pcurvature <0.001), while offspring BMI had linear associations with parental mortality (Ptrend<0.001, Pcurvature>0.46). Curvature was particularly pronounced for mortality from respiratory diseases and from lung cancer. Instrumental variable analyses suggested a positive association between BMI and mortality from all causes [Mothers: HR per SD of BMI 1.43 (95% CI 1.21 to 1.69). Fathers: HR 1.17, (1.00 to 1.36)] and from coronary heart disease [Mothers: HR 1.65 (1.15 to 2.36). Fathers: HR 1.51, (1.17 to 1.97)]. These were larger than HR from the equivalent conventional analyses, despite some attenuation by adjustment for social indicators and smoking. Conclusions Analyses using offspring BMI as a proxy for parental BMI suggest that the apparent adverse consequences of low BMI are considerably overestimated and adverse consequences of overweight are underestimated in conventional epidemiological studies.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Obesity
Early online date8 Sep 2021
Publication statusPublished - 8 Sep 2021


  • mortality
  • intergenerational
  • cohort study
  • life-course epidemiology
  • body mass index
  • instrumental variable


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