American health officials such as the American Lung Cancer Association have constantly stressed the detrimental effects of smoking on a person’s health. Smoking is known to cause lung cancer. But there is a new serious health issue plaguing the United States today that might cause more harm than smoking: obesity.

Reuters reports on a new study that compares smoking with obesity. 

In the 1950s and 1960s Americans were smoking away as they were not aware of the lasting effects of cigarettes and their propensity to cause lung cancer. Today American society has a new issue similar to smoking – obesity – and researchers are now warning Americans about the fact that being obese can cut numerous years off of a person’s life. How many years? Researchers say obesity can cut as many as fourteen years off of a person’s life.

Should doctors be warning patients more today than ever before about the effects of obesity? What types of health problems does obesity cause? Being severely over weight increases a person’s chances of getting diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, dementia, strokes, possibly breast cancer and many other issues that can be fatal. The study’s lead investigator, Mrs. Kitahara, told CBS news, “We found that the death rates in severely obese adults were about 2.5 times higher than in adults in the normal weight range. Severe obesity accounts for an excess 509 deaths per 100,000 men each year, and 382 excess deaths per 100,000 women.”

Fox news also commented on the study saying, “That obesity can cut life short by causing strokes and other illnesses comes as no surprise, but a new study reported on Tuesday quantifies the toll: The most extreme cases cut a person's lifespan more than cigarettes.” Therefore, people who are dangerously obese run a greater risk of dying early than smokers.

How was the study conducted? The study looked at around ten thousand people who were obese and three hundred thousand people who were of normal weight. “The analysis, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, is the largest-ever study of the effect of extreme obesity on mortality. It found that people who are extremely obese -- for someone of average height, carrying an extra 100 lb (45 kg) or more -- die 6.5 to 13.7 years earlier than peers with a healthy weight,” according to Reuters. Over the 30-year study period, the severely obese men and women were more likely to die at an earlier time in their life when compared with people of a normal weight. BMI (or body mass index) was the only measure of obesity used in the study. A person’s BMI calculation is based on their height and weight.

How many people are overweight today? What does that mean? How do you know if you fall into this category? Reuters explains,

“Worldwide, nearly 30 percent of people, or 2.1 billion, are either obese or overweight. ‘Obesity’ means a BMI of 30 or higher (180 lb at 5 feet 5 inches). ‘Extreme obesity’ is a BMI of 40 or higher, or 241 lb at that height. ‘Overweight’ is defined as having a body mass index, or weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters, of 25.0 to 29.9. At the low end, that is 150 lb (68 kg) for someone 5 feet 5 inches.”

The study showed that the general risk of dying at any point in time increased continuously with rising BMI within the extremely obese group. This issue was mostly caused by health problems such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, which are clearly brought on by obesity. “Heart disease was the major factor linked with death among the severely obese, followed by cancer, diabetes, kidney and liver disease,” according to CBS news.

How many years was a person’s life shortened based on their body mass index? Researchers said the results showed, “People with a BMI of 40 to 44.9 lost an average of 6.5 years of life. Those with a BMI of 45 to 49.9 lost 8.9 years, while BMIs of 50 to 54.9 cut 9.8 years and 55 to 59.9 cut 13.7 years. Among people with a healthy weight, those who smoked lost about 8.9 years.”

Obesity is being compared to the issue of smoking in previous decades because of the alarming rise in obesity cases and the increasing deaths caused by obesity. Deaths from obesity were not as big of an issue in the past as people were not as over weight in previous decades. Experts blame the alarming general weight gain on the emergence and new reliance of families on processed and frozen foods, which tend to be fattening and unhealthy. They say another reason for the rise in obesity is more lack of exercise in today’s world where more children (and even adults) are watching TV, sitting on a laptop, or iPad etc. and not receiving the proper exercise.

Dr. Kaplan who is the director of the weight center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston commented on the effectiveness of the study telling Reuters,

“The new calculation is unlikely to cause people with extreme obesity to shed pounds, for that presupposes that the main reason people don't lose weight is lack of willpower, and I'd argue that's not the case. But it could have a beneficial effect if it galvanizes society to change in ways that stop promoting obesity and to develop aggressive treatments for extreme obesity.”

How many adults in the United States are obese? The National Center for Health Statistics reports that a whopping thirty-six percent of adults in America are obese. They further stated, “The incidence of BMIs of 40 or higher has more than quadrupled since the mid-1980s, and about one in 16 U.S. adults is extremely obese.”

What should people do to combat the effects of obesity? Well besides the obvious remedy (losing weight) experts say that doctors should encourage people to make a more conscious effort not to become obese in the first place. Obesity is preventative through easy life style changes such as incorporating exercise and healthy eating habits. In a nutshell, the study author said in a statement that whether losing weight would improve a person’s lifespan is not clear but not becoming obese in the first place will certainly extend a person’s life. 

Gerry Oginski
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