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Doctors should worry more about older people who are underweight than those who are overweight, according to a study.

The research by the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health runs counter to many popular beliefs about weight gain. The study of 4,710 people found that overweight white women died at the same rate as those of normal weight. Death rates for overweight men were only slightly higher than they were among men in the normal weight range."Weight in and of itself is a relatively minor risk factor," said Dr. Matthew Tayback, coordinator of the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging.

"If there's something to pursue as an unrecognized risk factor in the elderly, we think it's more important to look at low weight," said Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika, a former Hopkins epidemiologist now at Pennsylvania State University.

The results of the study appeared recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a publication of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Richard Sprott of the National Institute on Aging said he had not read the study, but cautioned that it looked only at mortality and not quality of life.

"Being obese may not kill you, but it sure makes it hard to play tennis," he said.

The researchers found that death rates of overweight and optimum-weight women studied were identical. Overweight men ages 65 to 74 ran a 10 percent greater chance of dying.

Obesity, however, should not be ruled out as a risk factor for younger Americans, said Tayback, who suggested that the overweight elderly may fare well statistically because people whose obesity contributes to fatal heart attacks die before they get old.