Get the Skinny : Life Lost to Obesity: Quality And Longevity

Post-Tribune

06-02-06

With two out of three Americans overweight today, we're learning more and more about the numerous ways that carrying excess weight can really affect our health and diminish our quality of life.

But you may not have heard the hard facts about how overweight and obesity can diminish your quantity of life.

Simply put, overweight people die younger. On average, they lose as many years to their excess weight as smokers lose to their cigarettes.

It stands to reason, doesn't it? With all the health problems that we know are caused or worsened by excess weight, it is to be expected that those who carry an excess would die sooner than those who don't.

Still, we don't often hear the cost of our extra calories expressed in such stark terms. In the popular media, we've typically seen our weight problems discussed as a function of appearance and appeal, and feel the imperative to lose weight in order to be more attractive and more successful.

The medical establishment has been warning about the risks of obesity and overweight in terms that address their health consequences, but early death is seldom mentioned among these.

Yet Dutch researchers studying Americans found that there's a lot to lose for those who don't lose their extra pounds. Published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the data from the Dutch study were gathered from more than 3,450 subjects between the ages of 30 and 59. The researchers categorized people according to their body mass index, or BMI. A BMI of 19 to 24 is typically considered healthy, while a BMI of 25 to 29 is considered overweight, and a BMI of 30 or more is clinically obese.

Among those subjects who were overweight but not actually obese, the study showed that 40-year-old female nonsmokers lost 3.3 years of life due to their excess weight. In this weight class, the 40- year-old male nonsmokers lost 3.1 years of life expectancy. For non- smokers who were clinically obese, the news only got worse for women, who lost about seven years of life because of their obesity, while the men of this size lost just less than six years.

Not surprisingly, the loss is much greater for overweight smokers. When we add the strain and damage of cigarettes to the body's burden of obesity, the loss doubles, to around 13 years for both men and women.

But what "prevention and treatment" means depends on who you talk to, and it's becoming an increasingly controversial issue, with some saying that overweight is an individual problem caused by individual actions, and therefore one that should be dealt with by the people who are personally affected. But others say that's a gross oversimplification. Increasingly, public health official and other researchers assert that this is a social problem that deserves all the attention it can get.

Caroline J. Cederquist, M.D., is a board-certified family physician and a board-certified bariatric physician.