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Obesity kills more Americans than we thought

Obesity kills more Americans than we thought

Rachel Auerbach

Just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released statistics showing promise in the fight against childhood obesity, another study suggests the American public health system shouldn't be celebrating quite yet.

While new statistics show childhood obesity rates in the United States are dropping, obesity in adults still accounts for 18% of deaths among black or white Americans between ages 40 and 85, according to a study published this week in the American Journal of Public Health. Researchers say that's approximately 1 in 5 black or white Americans who are dying from illnesses related to obesity.

Even though the statistics may not surprise those who work in public health, they are nearly three times higher than previous estimates, according to study authors. "We expect that obesity will be responsible for an increasing share of deaths in the United States, and perhaps even lead to declines in U.S. life expectancy," said Ryan Masters, the lead study author and researcher with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Most policy initiatives are correct in trying to target (people) early in life to try and stave off this (obesity) problem in new generations."

The study used data from 1986 to 2006 and looked at thousands of people who were included in the National Health Interview Survey, noting their mortality rates and their body mass index, or BMI.

Study authors examined the link between obesity and death based on gender and race. They found an estimated 26.8% of deaths among black women were caused by being overweight or obese. White women followed with a 21.7% estimate, while approximately 15.6% of deaths among white men were due to obesity. Black men had the lowest percentage with 5% of deaths due to weight. Other ethnicities were not examined due to small sample sizes.

Participants were considered to be at normal weight if their BMI was between 18.5 and 25; they were considered overweight if their BMI was between 25 and 30, and considered obese if their BMI was over 30. Respondents who were underweight or over the age of 85 were not included in the study because they are already at an increased risk for mortality.

The study was the first to look at differences in ages, sex and race in analyzing Americans’ risk of dying from obesity.

"Past research in this area lumped together all Americans, but obesity prevalence and its effect on mortality differ substantially based on your race or ethnicity, how old you are and when you were born," said Masters. "It's important for policy-makers to understand that different groups experience obesity in different ways. “