Features July 2017 Issue

Study: Obesity Top Cause of Preventable Life-Years Lost

A Cleveland Clinic study found that obesity was a much greater cause of lost life-years than smoking, high blood pressure, and other factors.

Of the many modifiable risk factors that contribute to chronic disease and death, obesity is far and away the biggest cause of preventable life-years lost, according to a study by Cleveland Clinic and New York University.

In the study, researchers found that obesity resulted in 47 percent more lost life-years than cigarette smoking. In descending order, the causes of preventable life-years lost are:
- Obesity
- Diabetes
- Tobacco use
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol

“The reality is, while we may know the proximate cause of a patient’s death, for example, breast cancer or heart attack, we don’t always know the contributing factor(s), such as tobacco use, obesity, alcohol and family history,” says Glen Taksler, PhD, internal medicine researcher from Cleveland Clinic and lead author of the study. For each major cause of death, we identified a root cause to understand whether there was a way a person could have lived longer.”

Researchers examined the change in mortality for a set of hypothetical U.S. populations that each eliminated a single risk factor. Based on the data, researchers estimated the number of life-years lost to each factor. Results were compared with the change in life-years lost for a hypothetical population that eliminated all modifiable riskfactors.

“Modifiable behavioral risk factors pose a substantial mortality burden in the U.S.,” says Dr. Taksler. “These preliminary results continue to highlight the importance of weight loss, diabetes management and healthy eating in the U.S. population.”

Obesity Epidemic

Weight Loss Sign

Paulus Rusyanto | Dreamstime.com

If you are obese, weight loss can reduce your odds of developing high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

The researchers note that had this study been done 15 years ago, tobacco would have topped the list. But obesity is a rapidly growing public health crisis. About 78 million adults and 13 million children in the U.S. are obese. Obesity raises the risk of several health problems, such as heart and liver disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, acid reflux disease, some types of cancer, and certain respiratory problems.

The causes of this current obesity epidemic are many, but most experts lay part of the blame on a diet rich in added sugars, high-fat foods, and convenience foods that have replaced fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and legumes. Rather than follow a balanced diet, many Americans are consuming a high-calorie, nutrient-poor diet.

The other key cause of obesity is a sedentary lifestyle. Too much time in front of a computer or television screen and not enough time walking, jogging, swimming, doing aerobics, lifting weights, dancing or playing sports is taking its toll on the waistlines of America.

Not-So-Simple Solutions

The answer to obesity is quite simple—burn more calories than you consume to lose weight, but executing that strategy isn’t so simple. For example, organs such as the stomach and pancreas send signals to the brain that trigger feelings of hunger. After you’ve had a nice full meal, signals reach the brain to let it know that you’re full. But in some people the complex interaction of hormones, brain chemicals and other biologic systems doesn’t work right. You may feel hungry when you should be feeling full.

Of course, when you start eating less, you often spend more time feeling hungry, especially at first. Unsuccessful weight-loss efforts can occur when we give in too easily to those hungry feelings.

Also, if you’re not used to exercising, starting a regular workout routine may take some time and a little trial and error.

It’s in Your Hands

Dr. Taksler, who presented the study results at the 2017 Society of General Internal Medicine Annual Meeting, notes that factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol are treatable—usually with a combination of a healthy lifestyle and medications.

Knowing that you really can make the effort to improve your risk factors should help empower you to make the necessary changes in your eating and alcohol consumption, physical activity levels, smoking habits, and other lifestyle behaviors.

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