Technically, an epidemic involves a sudden and usually unexpected increase in cases of an infectious disease. But although obesity is not contagious, medical experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) describe it as an epidemic — and it’s spreading at an alarming rate, putting the health of millions of Americans in danger.
NIH and CDC warnings that being overweight raises the risk for potentially serious medical woes haven’t slowed down the weighty problem. Doctors telling countless patients they need to get weight under control hasn’t worked. And hundreds of books and diet plans supposedly explaining how to drop excess pounds easily haven’t made a dent in the increasing girth of Americans.
Bottom line: The U.S. has a big, fat problem.
Two recent studies, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), analyzed data compiled on 5,455 adults and 7,017 youngsters from the CDC’s ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The findings were clear. The U.S. obesity rate is worsening, and Americans are fatter than ever.
One report found, as of 2014 (the most recent year for which data were available), 35 percent of U.S. men were obese and even more women, over 40 percent, were also in this category. More than five percent of men were severely obese, and nearly 10 percent of women fell into the morbidly obese category, too. On average, American adults have gained 15 or more extra pounds since the late l980s and early l990s.
The second study revealed a little good news — there’s been a significant decline in obesity in kids between the ages of two and five. However, more older kids had a weight problem.
About one in five older U.S. children and teens were obese, and nearly six percent were in the morbidly obese range. By the time youngsters reached age 11, the researchers found girls weighed seven pounds more than girls the same age weighed two decades ago, and boys weighed a whopping 13.5 pounds more than their counterparts did about 20 years ago.
In all, over 78 million adults and more than 17 million children and teens in the U.S. are overweight or obese, according to CDC statistics. And this is far from simply a cosmetic problem of “muffin tops,” double chins, “love handles,” and big bellies. The obesity epidemic in America has profound consequences on individuals and the economy, too.
Obesity can shorten life and increases the risk of a host of ills from high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes to osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and certain cancers (endometrial, breast, colon, kidney, gallbladder, and liver). Mental illnesses, including clinical depression and anxiety, are more common in the significantly overweight, too, according to the CDC.
Being overweight or obese typically leads to more doctor visits, diagnostic tests, medications, and other treatments — spiking insurance and other healthcare costs. You’re more likely to miss days at work, have less productivity on the job, or become disabled. And you may end up dying prematurely, too.
It’s true treatments for diseases linked to being overweight keep many people functioning and living longer — for now. But with more and more Americans heavier than ever and suffering increasingly from multiple health conditions caused in large part by their weight, medical technology can only do so much to extend their lives, according to Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital endocrinologist David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD.
In a JAMA article accompanying the new obesity studies, Ludwig warns life expectancy from obesity-related chronic diseases could reverse decades-long improvements in longer life spans.
When an infectious disease epidemic is identified, scientists and doctors can usually halt it with medications and vaccines already available or they work on developing new treatments. But when it comes to the U.S. obesity epidemic, facts and figures show it’s spreading year by year, and there’s no vaccine or “magic bullet” pill to slow it down.
Don’t expect that to change, either. No new weight control drugs and surgical procedures will solve the problem, according to Howard Bauchner, MD, editor-in-chief of JAMA, and Jody W. Zylke, MD, senior editor of JAMA. In an editorial accompanying the recent obesity studies, they note research into genetics may help — but it will take many years to find out.
For now, they urge paying more attention to obesity prevention in childhood and even before birth. Childhood obesity has been linked to maternal obesity, Bauchner and Zylke pointed out — so women should work with their doctors to maintain a healthy weight during pregnancy and afterwards.
Even when families are motivated to eat a healthy diet, it is often difficult for parents juggling work, home, and other obligations to find time to prepare nutritious meals. The result can be serving too many high calorie fast foods and restaurant meals — especially the “all you can eat” type — that contribute to excess weight, the JAMA doctors said.
So what can Americans do to fight the obesity epidemic? Taking as much individual responsibility as possible to control your own weight, and that of your children, is the best weapon that’s available right now.
September 16, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN