Obesity found to shorten life more than cigarettes do

FACT FINDING: A new study reveals that extreme obesity can result in death faster than smoking and drinking
FACT FINDING: A new study reveals that extreme obesity can result in death faster than smoking and drinking

THAT obesity can cut life short by causing strokes and other illnesses comes as no surprise, but a study reported this month quantifies the toll: the most extreme cases cut a person’s life-span more than cigarettes.

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 45kg or more – die 6.5 to 13.7 years earlier than peers with a healthy weight.

The study, based on data from 20 large studies of people in the United States, Sweden and Australia, comes as rates of obesity have soared. Worldwide, nearly 30% of people, or 2.1 billion, are either obese or overweight.

“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 68kg for someone 1.65m tall. “Obesity” means a BMI of 30 or higher (81kgs at 1.6m).

“Extreme obesity” is a BMI of 40 or higher, or 109kg at that height.

The study included data on 9564 adults with extreme obesity and 304011 of normal weight.

The overall risk of dying at any given time rose continuously with increasing BMI within the extremely obese group, mostly due to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. 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. The study, by scientists at the National Cancer Institute, did not calculate whether less extreme obesity shortens life, and the researchers could not say whether the results would hold for poorer, non-Western populations.

The new calculation is unlikely to cause people with extreme obesity to shed pounds, for “that pre-supposes that the main reason people don’t lose weight is lack of willpower, and I’d argue that’s not the case,” Dr Lee Kaplan, director of the weight centre at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston said.

“But it could have a beneficial effect if it galvanises society to change in ways that stop promoting obesity and to develop aggressive treatments for extreme obesity.”

In the United States, 36% of adults are obese, according to the National Centre for Health Statistics. The incidence of BMIs of 40 or higher has more than quadrupled since the mid-1980s, and about one in six US adults is extremely obese. – Reuters

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