Obesity in America Is Three Times More Deadly Than We Thought …

Photo: Ed Yourdon/Flickr

The massively unhealthy food, urban development, advertising, and healthcare system the United States has created over the past several decades leading to the obesity epidemic still gripping the nation is even more deadly than we thought. 

New research from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health shows that from 1986-2006 obesity accounted for 18 percent of deaths among white and black Americans aged 40 to 85—a far higher amount, the authors say, than past estimates that obesity is responsible for 5 percent of deaths in that demographic. 

The percentage of deaths from obesity on other ethnicities was not examined in the study. 

As for the effect of obesity in more detail: Black women are the worst-affected group, with 27 percent of black women aged 40-85 at risk of dying from obesity or being overweight. In white women, 21 percent are at risk. There are twice as many obese black women as there are white.

For men, 15 percent of white men and 5 percent of black men are at risk of dying from excess weight—though the report says that the comparatively low rate of death among black men is because higher rates of cigarette smoking and socioeconomic conditions somewhat skew the statistics.

(For example, being obese, old, and a smoker are all factors in heart disease. But an obese smoker who dies of heart disease may be more likely to have the disease attributed to smoking, rather than obesity.)

Though rates of obesity seem to have peaked among young people in certain demographics, the long term effect is yet to be felt. “We expect that obesity will be responsible for an increasing share of deaths in the United States and perhaps even lead to declines in US life expectancy,” lead author Ryan Masters said.

Looking at the US adult population more broadly, 73.1 percent of non-Hispanic white men and 60.2 percent of non-Hispanic women are overweight or obese, with 68.7 percent of non-Hispanic blacks having a BMI higher than 25, and 79.9 percent of non-Hispanic women crossing that same unhealthy threshold.

Converting all those extra pounds into dollars, the American Heart Association estimates that if current obesity rates continue, by 2030 16 to 18 percent of all healthcare expenditures in the United States will be attributable to obesity.

We haven’t seen the tail end of the obesity epidemic, and won’t for awhile. Currently in the United States among children aged 2 to 19, 33 percent of boys and 30.4 percent of girls are obese or overweight. Just looking at obesity, 18.6 percent of boys have a BMI of 30 or greater, while 15 percent of girls do. That’s across all ethnicities in the US.

“A 5-year old growing up today is living in an environment where obesity is much more the norm that was the case for a 5-year old a generation or two ago,” co-author Bruce Link said. “Drink sizes are bigger, clothes are bigger, and a greater number 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.”