Obesity and Mortality

Obesity across generations significantly impacts mortality rates. In fact, up to 18 percent of deaths between 1986 and 2006 in the United States can be attributed to obesity, according to a new study by researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at Columbia University. Worldwide, obesity rates have more than doubled since 1980, and it’s possible that obesity deaths will continue to grow.

“Obesity is unhealthy at any age, but as obese individuals grow older, they are more likely to experience serious health complications of obesity, including premature death,” said study author Ryan Masters, Ph.D., who conducted the research at Columbia.

As obese individuals age and their health problems mount, they become less likely to participate in studies, which means that study populations often skew healthier, Masters told Healthline. Though his findings have been corrected for a selection biases, it’s possible that even these results underestimate associations between obesity, age, and mortality.

“Our findings indicate that obesity is a substantial contributor to premature mortality in the U.S. for most…groups,” Masters said. 

What’s the Real Impact of Obesity?

Earlier this month, the U.S. breathed a sigh of relief. Childhood obesity was on the decline in low-income preschoolers between 2008 and 2011 in 19 of 43 states and territories studied, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While Masters' study in no way contradicts that progress, it does look at obesity in people at the other end of life.

“The impact of obesity on U.S. mortality appears somewhat more serious than suggested by existing findings,” Masters said.

His study focused on a “third dimension” of the obesity epidemic, in which younger generations are at a higher risk relative to the rest of the population. “Research has shown that the changes in the environment, lifestyle, diet, etc. that have produced the U.S. obesity epidemic are disproportionately affecting more recent cohorts,” Masters said.

Black Women Most at Risk

Masters used data from participants between the ages of 40 and 85 in 19 consecutive waves of the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) from 1986 to 2004. The groups most at risk were black and white women, with 26.8 and 21.7 percent, respectively, of deaths between 1986 and 2004 in these populations linked to obesity.

“Our findings suggest obesity remains a strong mortality risk factor across all ages," Masters said. "We should not neglect this."

Consider this: people who were already 60 years old at the time of the study lived 50 years of their lives in a world where obesity was not the norm. Today, a child is born into a world where more than one-third of all U.S. adults are obese, and while childhood obesity may be on the decline, nearly one-fifth of all American children are obese. That’s triple the obesity rate of a generation ago, according to the CDC.

“Generations that have been born into, raised in, and grown up through these new environmental, lifestyle, nutritional conditions are bearing the greatest brunt in terms of prevalence of high body mass and the adverse health consequences,” Masters said.

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