Most Americans know that their excess weight is harming their health, but a new survey indicates that many are not aware of just how many ways obesity is detrimental to the body. Being overweight not only contributes to heart disease and diabetes (admittedly, two of the biggest problems due to extra poundage), but can cause a whole host of other conditions that are purely preventable.
By now, you have heard that the majority of US citizens are now considered overweight or obese. Two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of all children and teens carry too much weight to be considered ideal for optimal health. "Obesity is one of the most challenging health crises this country has ever faced," says Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health. "Twenty years ago, no state had an obesity rate higher than 15 percent. Now, only Colorado is below 20 percent."
However, when asked to list the consequences of overweight and obesity, 7 in 10 Americans surveyed through The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research cannot list more than the big two – cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Only about 52% of those surveyed have had a discussion with their doctor about their weight status and the risks involved with not taking action to lose weight. Only 12% of parents have that same discussion with a pediatrician regarding their overweight children.
"People are often shocked to hear how far-reaching the effects of obesity are," said Jennifer Dimitriou, a bariatric dietitian at New York's Montefiore Medical Center.
Head to Toe – Here is What Obesity Can Do to Your Health
Dementia – Obesity can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 80% according to a 2008 study found in the May issue of Obesity Reviews. In this study, US researchers evaluated the results of 10 international studies covering just over 37,000 people in five countries and found that being overweight increased the risk of dementia substantially because of decreased blood supply to the brain. Thankfully, starting now to eat right and exercise can reduce this risk.
Depression – People who are obese are more likely to be diagnosed with depression. It’s hard to determine whether depression causes someone to overeat or if obesity leads to clinical depression, but one research team found that it can be a two-way street where each condition influences the other. Biologically, both obesity and depression are associated with an inflammatory state. Depression can also affect weight by interfering with the endocrine system.
Eye Health – Obesity is linked to age-related cataract, glaucoma, age-related maculopathy and diabetic retinopathy. For example, data from the Nurses’ Health Study found that women with a BMI of 23 or greater had a higher rate of cataract surgery than compared to women with lower levels, even after adjusting for other factors such as age. Cortical (the most common form of senile cataract) and PSC (posterior subscapsular) cataracts are the types most consistently associated with obesity.
Oral Health – Various studies have shown that obese individuals suffer more oral health problems that normal weight people. Obese patients tend to have higher levels of tooth decay and periodontal disease. Regrettably, being obese keeps some people from the dentist because of ergonomic issues in the treatment area (ie: chairs too small). Poor diet (sweet snacks and soft drinks), uncontrolled heartburn, and poor oral hygiene contribute to the problem.
Chronic Ear Infections – In children, obesity may be linked to an increased risk of otitis media, better known as middle ear infection.
Sleep Apnea – Those who are obese are at greater risk for sleep apnea, a disorder characterized by an interruption in breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type, caused by a blockage of the airway, usually by the soft tissue in the back of the throat which collapses during sleep. Have a neck size of 17 inches or more in men and 16 inches or more in women increases the risk of developing sleep apnea.
Asthma – Only about 5% of Americans are aware that the risk of respiratory problems, such as asthma, is increased by obesity and that excess weight could cause more severe symptoms. The treatment of asthma may also be affected, as one study found that obese patients may not respond as well to medications. In addition, when it comes to respiratory illness such as the flu, obesity can reduce the effectiveness of treatment.
Breast Cancer – Many cancers, including breast cancer, can be linked to excess weight. Having a normal weight at the time of diagnosis may also increase the chance of survival if a woman does develop the disease as heavier breasts make it more difficult to spot and treat tumors.
Other Cancers – The National Cancer Institute notes that obesity is linked to an increased risk for esophageal, pancreatic, colorectal, endometrial, kidney, thyroid, and gallbladder cancers. The percentage of cases attributed to obesity varied widely for the different cancer types but was as high as 40% for some cancers, particularly endometrial cancer and esophageal adenocarcinoma.
High Blood Pressure – One in three American adults have HBP and almost 400,000 people die prematurely each year due to complications. Hypertension damages the heart, blood vessels, kidneys and other parts of the body. Stroke, a complication of high blood pressure, is also increased in those who are overweight.
Fatty Liver – Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NALD) is a reversible condition in which fat accumulates in the liver cells of obese people. It is thought to affect up to as many as 75% of those who are clinically obese. NALD patients are also at a five times greater risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. A sedentary lifestyle adds to the risks.
Gallstones – There is an increased risk of gallstones with excess abdominal weight, even in children. Extremely obese young people have six times the risk of developing gallstones; moderately obese people have four times the risk.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome – PCOS is a frequent cause of infertility among women. Insulin resistance and low-grade inflammation (both components of obesity) are thought to be causes of the condition. An estimated 5 million women in the US have PCOS.
Male Infertility – It’s not only women who have a more difficult time conceiving a child if they carry excess weight. Men who are overweight or obese have a lower sperm count than those at an ideal BMI.
Arthritis/Pain Conditions (including Fibromyalgia) - About 15 percent of people surveyed knew obesity can contribute to arthritis, a vicious cycle as the joint pain then makes it harder to exercise and shed pounds. One study indicates that one in five US adults (about 50 million) have been diagnosed with arthritis, the leading cause of disability in the nation. Obesity affects a significant number of those patients.
Knowing more about the myriad ways obesity affects health could help motivate people to get more active and eat better before full-blown disease strikes, Dimitriou said. Hopefully this extensive list of complications due to excess weight will encourage you to have a discussion with your doctor about how to better control diet and increase exercise to become healthy and more fit.
The AP-NORC Center survey was conducted Nov. 21 through Dec. 14. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,011 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, "Obesity in the United States: Public Perceptions"
Ning Cheung, MBBS1and Tien Y. Wong, PhD Obesity and Eye Diseases. Surv Ophthalmol. 2007; 52(2): 180–195. doi: 10.1016/j.survophthal.2006.12.003
Obesity Action Coalition
National Cancer Institute
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute