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Obesity, A Bigger Killer Than We Thought

Update Date: Aug 16, 2013 12:28 PM EDT

The obesity epidemic affects the global community on a huge scale. Researchers have found mounting evidence that obesity is tied to several other health conditions, such as heart disease and type two diabetes that could lead to premature death. Since the obesity rate is still rising in a lot of countries, governments and agencies throughout the world have been working to find ways of lowering the obesity rate. In a new study, researchers discovered that obesity actually kills more than people previously believed.

"Obesity has dramatically worse health consequences than some recent reports have led us to believe," said first author Ryan Masters, PhD, who conducted the research as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "We expect that obesity will be responsible for an increasing share of deaths in the United States and perhaps even lead to declines in U.S. life expectancy."

For this study, the researchers looked at 19 waves from the National Health Interview Survey that was tied to people's mortality rates from the National Death Index. The researchers analyzed the data from 1986 to 2006 and concentrated on the age group of 40 to 85. The researchers controlled for accidental deaths, homicides and congenital conditions. The team discovered that over these past decades, obesity was responsible for 18 percent of the deaths in Black and White people living in the United States in that age group. Scientists had calculated that number to be five percent.

The report also found that even though obesity appears to have declined for some groups of young adults, for other groups, the rates are still extremely high. The researchers found that specifically for the older Americans between the ages of 65 and 70, the rate of death caused by grade one obesity kept increasing. Grade one obesity occurs when the body mass index (BMI), which measures height in relation to weight, is anywhere from 30 to 35. The researchers found that for this age group, the death rate caused by obesity started off at 3.5 percent for those born in 1915 to 1919. People born 10 years after had a rate of death at five percent. People born another 10 years later had a rate of death at seven percent.

"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," said co-author Bruce Link, PhD, professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "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 researchers also found that black women had a 27 percent risk of dying form being overweight or obese. This percentage was the highest amongst all groups and was followed by a 21 percent risk of death in white women. Black men had a lower risk of death at five percent and white men had a risk of death at 15 percent. These rates could potentially encourage people at high risk of death to take care of their health.

The study, "The Impact of Obesity on U.S. Mortality Levels: The Importance of Age and Cohort Factors in Population Estimates," was published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

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