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Obesity Epidemic and its Consequences

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

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The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that among children between the ages of 2 and 19 years in 2016, 57% will be obese by the age of 35 years. Some experts report that this may be the first generation to die younger than their parents. Others say, with medicine people will live to a ripe old age but be ill much of the time. Either option is not particularly attractive. With obesity, comes a host of diseases including type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, hypertension, lipid problems, polycystic ovarian syndrome, dementia, and some cancers. The reasons for the obesity epidemic are numerous but clearly the mantra of eat right and exercise alone is not working. Just this past week, the CDC reported obesity and exercise are both on the rise. How could this be? How can America be moving more and getting fatter at the same time? The answer is complex. One possible reason is the false perception that walking 20 minutes per day will offset the pizza, cheese puffs, and fries. Another is that people overestimated their activity levels when answering the survey. However, a very real possibility is that obesity is being driven by a variety of factors including high-calorie, low-nutrient diets, sugar addiction, sleep deprivation, stress, lack of understanding, marketing of engineered foods, sedentary lifestyle, and the normalization of obesity. No matter the causes, the cost is extreme and not just in terms of individual health. The crisis affects all people even those in optimal health.  

High obesity rates have a significant impact on our communities, nation, and world.  The effects reach the finance, military, education, and safety sectors.  Stateofobesity.org, a project of the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, reports the following findings. 

Obesity is a financial issue. The obesity crisis costs our nation more than $150 billion in healthcare costs annually and billions of dollars more in lost productivity. According to a Brookings Institution analysis, the high percentage of obesity cases combined with Medicaid and Medicare treatment costs translates to $91.6 billion in yearly federal expenditures.

Obesity is a national security issue. The obesity crisis also impacts our nation's military readiness. Being overweight or obese is the leading cause of medical disqualifications, with nearly 25% of service applicants rejected for exceeding the weight or body fat standards.Obese service and family members cost the military about $1 billion every year in healthcare costs and lost productivity. Mission: Readiness (Council for Strong America), found that more than 70% of today's youth are not fit to serve in the military due to obesity or being overweight, criminal records, drug misuse or educational deficits.

Obesity is a community safety issue. With millions of obese and overweight Americans serving as first responders, firefighters, police officers and in other essential community service and protection roles, public safety is at risk. Seventy percent of firefighters are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for cardiovascular events — the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths. 

Obesity is a child development and academic achievement issue. Obesity prevention is an investment in our children's ability to learn and grow. Childhood obesity is correlated with poor educational performance and increased risk for bullying and depression. If all kids have the opportunity to grow up at a healthy weight — a lifestyle that includes nutritious food and plenty of time for active play — they are more likely to reach their full potential.

Obesity is an equity issue. Obesity disproportionately affects low-income and rural communities as well as certain racial and ethnic groups, including Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. Societal inequities contribute to these disparities. For example, in many communities, children have few safe outdoor spaces to play or accessible routes to walk or bike to school. Their neighborhoods may often be food deserts, having small food outlets and fast-food restaurants that sell and advertise unhealthy food and beverages, but lacking those with fresh and healthy foods at affordable prices.

Obesity is a top national priority. Americans (registered voters) rated obesity as the top health concern in the country in a recent public opinion survey conducted by the Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research and Bellweather Research groups. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) support increasing investments to improve the health of communities, including addressing the obesity crisis and other major health concerns.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville, NY. For further information, contact Lorraine at (585)335-4327 or lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org

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Mary Sue Dehn

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