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Obesity Poised to Surpass Cigarette Smoking as Leading Cause of Preventable Death

Update Date: Feb 01, 2013 01:07 PM EST

It is commonly stated that cigarette smoking is the largest cause of preventable deaths in the world. However, Dr. Charles H. Hennekens from the Florida Atlantic University says that obesity is poised to become the largest cause of preventable death in the world. He says that obesity is already the largest preventable cause of type 2 diabetes in the world, and argues that the risks of the condition have been understated in the media and in medical journals.

As he writes in the American Journal of Medicine, "The dangers of obesity have been grossly underestimated due to several biases. The first is the failure to control for cigarette smoking. Cigarette smokers are thinner because of appetite suppression and increased metabolic rates and also die at higher rates. Thus, the failure to control for this confounder leads to the erroneous conclusion that obesity is less harmful. The second is inappropriate control for direct biologic effects of obesity such as hypertension, dyslipidemia and diabetes. Inappropriate control for direct effects of obesity, which are not confounders, leads to gross underestimates of harm. The third is failure to exclude subjects at baseline with severe weight loss due to subclinical disease. In large prospective cohort studies, lower weight at baseline due to subclinical disease leads to premature mortality, so failure to exclude such subjects underestimates the hazards of obesity."

Already, 2 out of 3 Americans are either overweight or obese. Hennekens stresses the importance of preventative health measures undertaken during childhood, stating that this generation of adolescents may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents - because of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancers and other obesity-related illnesses. For older adults, the doctor notes that it is much more feasible to avoid gaining weight rather than attempting to lose weight.

"The export of our diet and lifestyle, which increases rates of obesity, together with tobacco, to developing countries will result in cardiovascular disease emerging as the leading killer in the world," Hennekens said in a statement.

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