Obesity’s Death Rate Was Highly Underestimated
A new report reveals that experts had tremendously underrated the death counts brought on by obesity in the United States.
Obesity accounts for 18 percent of deaths among Americans between the ages of 40 and 85, according to research from the American Journal of Public Health. Earlier counts had established obesity-related deaths at only 5 percent of all U.S. mortalities. "This was more than a tripling of the previous estimate," said study author Ryan Masters, who conducted the study as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation scholar at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, in New York City. "Obesity has dramatically worse health consequences than some recent reports have led us to believe."
Previous counts were miscalculated by disregarding generational discrepancies in the way the obesity epidemic has afflicted Americans, Masters said. The experts reported that, due to younger generations being caught up longer in risk factors for obesity, they are at an even higher possibility of becoming overweight or obese, and experiencing all the health dilemmas that are attended by the unnecessary pounds and unwanted fats.
"A 5-year-old growing up today is living in an environment where obesity is much more the norm than was the case for a 5-year-old a generation or two ago. Drink sizes are bigger, clothes are bigger and greater numbers of a child's peers are obese," study co-author Bruce Link, a professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia, said in a statement. "And once someone is obese, it is very difficult to undo. So, it stands to reason that we won't see the worst of the epidemic until the current generation of children grows old." The experts scrutinized this risk by dividing the population down into "cohorts," or generations, and studying the impact of obesity on deaths for those age groups.
Utilizing these generational groups, they examined 19 years' worth of annual U.S. National Health Interview Surveys from 1986 through 2004, and compared those studies to individual mortality records from the National Death Index. They concentrated on ages 40 to 85, to eliminate deaths caused by accidents, homicides and congenital conditions, the leading causes of mortality for younger people. "Successive cohorts are living in this new environment and are at greater risk of obesity at earlier times in their lives," Masters said. "Each specific cohort looks like a wave that's grown bigger than the cohort that has come before it." For example, Masters and his colleagues noted obesity's increasing effect on mortality in white men who died between the ages of 65 and 70 in the years 1986 to 2006. Obesity accounted for about 3.5 percent of deaths for those born between 1915 and 1919, but it accounted for about 5 percent of deaths for those born 10 years later. Obesity was around 7 percent of those born another 10 years later.
Women appeared to be more susceptible than men to dying from obesity. Black women had the overall highest possibility of dying from obesity or being overweight, at 27 percent, followed by white women at 21 percent. Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the new study contributes an advantageous scheme for understanding and engaging the obesity epidemic. "Up to now, it's been a unilateral discussion about how obese you were or how much body fat you had," Benjamin said. "The solutions are not only more exercise and eating better, but a whole range of environmental factors we're going to have to address. The generation we have now is expected to be obese longer. That's a core reason we need to change things now if we're going to make this a healthier generation." To that end, the research does approve current attempts by public health officials to conquer the obesity epidemic by focusing on youngsters, Masters said. "The fact they've been trying to stave off obesity earlier and earlier in life, I think, is the right thing," Masters said. "It's a reaffirmation of the public health campaigns that are putting obesity at the forefront."
Ryan Masters, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York City; Georges Benjamin, M.D., executive director, American Public Health Association; Aug. 15, 2013, American Journal of Public Health, online