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Obesity more deadly than previously thought, study finds

According to a recent study, obesity has accounted for 18 percent of deaths among Americans between the ages of 40 and 85, challenging previous estimates of around 5 percent.

Lead author Ryan Masters, from Columbia University’s School of Public Health, expects that obesity will continue to be responsible for an increasing share of deaths in the United States, perhaps even leading to a decline in life expectancy.

There have been indications that obesity is declining for some groups of young people, but rates continue to reach historic highs. Currently, obese children and adults will likely experience long-term, lasting effects over the course of their lives.

The rising toll is already evident in older Americans. Between 1915 and 1919, grade one-obesity, having a body mass index between 30 and 35, accounted for about 3.5 percent of deaths. Ten years later, it accounted for about five percent of deaths, while 20 years later this number rose to seven percent.

In the 1980s, the obesity epidemic hit across all age groups. Thus, older Americans have experienced this epidemic for a relatively short period of time, while younger age groups will bear the full brunt.

Today drink sizes are bigger, clothing is larger, and a greater number of children’s peers will be obese. Once someone is obese, it can be very difficult to undo, so it stands to reason that the worst of the epidemic won’t occur until the current generation of children grows old.

The study is the first to account for differences in age, birth cohort, sex, and race, from which obesity prevalence differs substantially.

The researchers analyzed 19 birth cohorts from the National Health Interview Survey and linked these to individual mortality records from the National Death Index – the most recent data available covered the time period from 1986 to 2006. The focus was on individuals aged between 40 and 85 in order to exclude accidental deaths, homicides, and congenital conditions.

Of the groups examined, black women displayed the highest obesity mortality risk at 27 percent, followed by white women at 21 percent. White men fared slightly better at 15 percent, while black men had the lowest risk of dying from obesity at five percent. White men and black men have similar rates of obesity, but the effect on mortality is lower in black men because it’s crowded out by other risk factors, such as high rates of smoking. There were insufficient data to make estimates for other ethnic groups.