Weight Gain Eroding Americans' Quality of Life

TUESDAY Aug. 3, 2010 -- As Americans' average weight keeps rising, their quality of life is falling, according to new research.

The nationwide study found that the number of healthy days per year that Americans lose due to obesity has more than doubled over the past two decades, from about 7.5 in 1993 to 17 in 2008.

Researchers calculated the amount of healthy time lost, in addition to noting trends of increasing obesity across the country in all racial and ethnic groups for men and women in every state.

While the findings support a general trend, some groups were more seriously affected. Obesity has caused black women to lose the greatest amount of time spent in good health (more than 24 fewer such days per year). That number is 31 percent higher than for black men, who lost the second highest amount of healthy time due to being obese, and 50 percent higher than that of whites.

Most of women's healthy days lost to obesity were due to illness, while most of the men's loss was due to early death, the study found.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 39 percent of black women and 31 percent of black men are now obese. Hispanics, with an obesity rate of 29 percent, tend to be slightly more obese than whites, at 24 percent, according to the CDC. But the amount of lost healthy time was about the same for both groups in the study.

The findings support the notion that obesity could overwhelm recent advances in public health, a researcher said.

"The gains being made on the burden on our health-care system by decreases in smoking could be eroded by the progression of obesity if we don't have lots of interventions in place," noted Dr. Erica I. Lubetkin, co-author of the study published in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

In the report, the researchers looked at data from about 3.5 million Americans tracked by the CDC from 1993 to 2008, showing that obesity nearly doubled from 14 to 27 percent of the adult population during that time.

The study authors then used data from self-reports on health and daily activity to calculate the number of days per year Americans lost due to poor health, and added that to the data from the CDC. These combined to calculate, for the first time, a single estimate of total healthy time lost due to obesity, said Lubetkin, who is associate medical professor in the department of community health and social medicine at The City College of New York.

Illnesses associated with obesity include heart disease, diabetes, various cancers, osteoarthritis, hypertension and depression, Lubetkin said.

Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, said the study made clear that the trend will have a profound effect on society and the health-care system if nothing changes.

More people will work fewer years and need more social support, contends Diekman, and public facilities will need to be redesigned to accommodate heavier people with more health problems who can't walk or climb stairs easily.

"There has been a bit of a tendency to say 'well, that's not me, it's your problem, or it's this race's problem,' whereas this study is saying the impact is going to be on all of us because it does cross all barriers," said Diekman.

"We have long known certain segments of the population are more obese than others and we know the impact is that it triggers more health problems," said Diekman, noting that obesity affects the ability to lead a normal life. The economic strain will be felt by everyone, she said.

Lubetkin said enormous interventions were needed, similar to those used in the fight against tobacco.

"Getting junk food out of the schools, having more recess and gym, discouraging television and computer use" would be a good place to start, she said. More emphasis on counseling, along with requiring insurance companies to pay for prevention, would also help significantly, she said.

Diekman believes that most Americans still don't know how to eat a healthy diet.

"It [nutrition] used to be a part of basic education," she said. "So many schools dropped this along with physical activity in order to emphasize science and math, and those things are important, but if we aren't healthy and can't use those skills for a long period of time, what's the point?"

More information

There's more on battling obesity at the American Heart Association.

Posted: August 2010


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