Obesity may be responsible for a staggering 18 percent of deaths among both white and black Americans aged 40 to 85, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University’s School of Public Health. If the new findings are accurate, the disease may actually kill triple the number of people estimated by previous studies.
The study authors say that existing research has undershot obesity-related mortality by neglecting to factor in generational changes. Since American obesity rates have been on the rise over the past three decades (although they have experienced a slowdown in recent years) and often forms during childhood, the disease can have a long-term snowball effect that the researchers say have gone unappreciated.
“A 5-year-old growing up today is living in an environment where obesity is much more the norm than was the case for a 5-year-old a generation or two ago,” wrote study co-author Bruce Link in a statement. “Drink sizes are bigger, clothes are bigger and greater numbers of a child’s peers are obese. And once someone is obese, it is very difficult to undo. So, it stands to reason that we won’t see the worst of the epidemic until the current generation of children grows old.”
Researchers cited the example of white men between the ages of 65 and 70 to make their point. This demographic has been succumbing to obesity-related conditions like heart attack and stroke in increasing numbers. Lead study author Ryan Masters worries that the epidemic could get even worse in the future because of the high number of Americans growing up with childhood obesity.
Critics questioned whether the researchers’ methodology was more sound than current ways of calculating obesity-related deaths. Part of the problem is that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which tracks these trends for the U.S. government, doesn’t use “obesity” as an official disease that can be attributable as a cause of death. The CDC only considers the diseases caused by obesity, like heart attacks and strokes.
Masters and his fellow researchers used self-reported BMI data and compared them against death certificates to come up with their figures. But some say that method ignores non-obesity factors that can cause the same types of fatal conditions as obesity. “They didn’t account for smoking other risk factors like alcohol consumption,” said Kenneth Thorpe, a former Health and Human Services department official and health policy expert at Emory University, in an interview with the Associated Press. “The study doesn’t account for health insurance status, and we know that contributes to mortality rates.”
Regardless of what the true number is, one thing is clear: obesity presents a clear public health threat that also comprises between 10 and 15 percent of all private and public insurance costs. In recent months, the CDC has found positive indications that American adults’ obesity rate is undergoing a slowdown. The agency also found a significant drop in childhood obesity for the first time in its history earlier in August.