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Obesity is officially considered an epidemic in western cultures. In the 30 years between 1970 and 2000, the number of obese persons in the United States has grown from 15% of the population to 31 percent of the population. We know that obesity leads to diabetes and high blood pressure. Having a Body Mass Index of greater than 30 is now considered a risk factor for heart disease, even if other risk factors are not present. There has been some controversy, however, over whether being obese leads to more frequent hospitalization, illness and death in old age.
In an effort to answer this question, Lijing Yan, PhD, MPH and his colleagues studied data that had been collected as part of the Chicago Heart Association Detection Project (JAMA. 2006; 295: 190-198). The study collected information from 17,643 men and women aged 31 to 64 during the years between 1967 and 1973. The examination included BMI, blood pressure, non-fasting cholesterol and electrocardiogram. Information was also collected on demographics, ethnic group, smoking, medical history and medications used.
The researchers then looked at data through 2002 and matched the study participants with specific diagnoses by using Medicare records. Their main outcome that they wanted to measure was the risk of dying after age 65. They then divided those in the study into one of five levels of risk of heart disease, as defined by their blood pressure, cholesterol level and smoking.
The results of the scientist’s efforts showed that regardless of other risk factors for heart disease, their chance of hospitalization and death after age 65 increased as their BMI increased. This risk was the highest in obese persons as compared to those of normal weight. As a person’s risk increased towards the highest levels their risk for hospitalization and death increased as well.
One of the most fascinating pieces of information is how few low risk persons there were at age 65. Only 6.7% of people in the study were in the low risk category as based on the defined criteria. If normal weight is added to the criteria of risk for heart disease, that number drops to only 3.9%. This means that less than 4% of those studied were of normal weight and had a low risk for heart disease.
This is a study that supports other research that has also demonstrated the positive impact a change in lifestyle can have on people’s health. Considering the costs to society of the health problems caused by being overweight or obese, the authors of this study call for “population-wide, multifaceted, primary prevention [of overweight] starting at young age.”
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
April 3, 2006