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Obesity even deadlier than thought

Teresa Tanoos's picture

According to a new study, obesity is deadlier than originally thought, causing approximately 18 percent of all deaths in the United States. That’s triple the amount the government previously estimated.


Given that 33 percent of Americans are overweight, with another 35 percent obese, there is growing controversy over the findings of this study, which has been published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers involved in the study express concern over how the government’s prior estimates minimize just how dangerous obesity really is – and how challenging it can be to determine the total cost of obesity as evidenced by the controversy surrounding the findings.

This isn’t the first time the government has been under attack regarding obesity in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) significantly lowered its estimates of obesity-related deaths in 2004 to 112,000 a year – a major drop from the 365,000 deaths the CDC estimated the year before.

According to Ryan Masters however, obesity is the cause of 20 percent of deaths among women and 15 percent of men. Masters conducted the latest study at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Columbia University.

“We found that obesity indeed has a quite significant effect on mortality levels in the United States and estimates are actually significantly larger than prevailing wisdom has suggested,” Masters told NBC News.

“Existing literature largely indicates roughly about 5 percent of all adult deaths in the United States could be associated with overweight or obesity,” Masters says. “What we find is that between the ages of 40 and 85 … about 18 percent of all deaths that took place between 1986 and 2006 could be said to be associated with high body mass.”

Masters is also concerned the problem will only get worse because there’s currently an entire generation of Americans who have been obese from childhood, and will be obese their entire lives.

In making his estimates, Masters used data from several national health surveys that covered a period of 20 years (from 1986 to 2006) and then examined the death records from the same data.

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“Previous research has likely underestimated obesity’s impact on US mortality,” Masters and colleagues wrote.

Why is that? According to Masters, one reason is that previous research estimates leave out people in hospitals and nursing homes.

"From our findings, obesity actually has a very strong and substantial effect on old age mortality risk,” he says, adding that another reason is that obesity isn’t a direct cause of death.

For example, obesity isn’t even cited as a cause of death by the CDC, although the agency lists heart disease as the number one killer, causing around 598,000 deaths of the total 2.5 million Americans who died in 2010.

It is well-known that being overweight or obese significantly increases your risk of heart disease and other deadly illnesses and conditions, and more often than not, such people are do not exercise as much as their thinner counterparts.

Similarly, research shows that people who are heavier tend to smoke more and eat less healthy foods than those who are slim.

EmaxHealth.com offers a variety of research-based articles on weight management, including dieting tips and the latest news about obesity. The following is a list containing links to just a few of the more recent stories EmaxHealth has published on such topics:

Determined Diet Bloggers Share Their Best Weight Loss Tips
Exercise is the panacea of weight loss - 24 concluding thoughts
Weight Loss tips and facts to get your diet off to a great start
Jorge Cruise's '100 Diet' Helps You Lose 18 Pounds in 2 Weeks: Recipes

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, “The Impact of Obesity on US Mortality Levels: The Importance of Age and Cohort Factors in Population Estimates,” published online August 15, 2013 (doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2013.301379).