Obesity Responsible for Declining U.S. Life Expectancy

Obesity is one of the leading causes of premature death in America.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a fun little internet site called Factbook, where you can (as the name suggests) get facts about various countries. You can get basic information like population and capital, as well as statistics about how nations rate against one another in categories like personal wealth, health, life expectancy, and many others.

Recently, they released their most up-to-date chart of the life expectancies of various countries. It may be a surprise to some, but the US did not fare well. Out of 222 countries, we were number 51 in life expectancy and, as many already know, we are by far the world’s most overweight country.

Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and a third are technically obese. Compare that to countries like Japan or South Korea, where only three to four percent of the population is obese.

While obesity rates are either falling or staying in stasis for some parts of the world, the US and many other developed nations have seen marked increases in the obesity rates of their citizens, and those numbers are likely to rise. Many doctors and scientists argue that obesity is the main reason for the (frankly pathetic) life expectancy of America, the world’s wealthiest nation.

The reasons behind America’s high levels of obesity are complex, and vary depending on whom you ask. However, there is a general consensus that something needs to change.

Who is Overweight?

Well, the easy answer is almost everyone. Nearly 32 percent of children are overweight, with numbers highest among junior high and high school aged children.

Among adults, obesity rates have doubled since the 1970s. Rates are similar among men and women, but are notably different among ethnicities, particularly when looking at women.

African American and Hispanic women have notably higher incidences of obesity than white women and those of other ethnicities. Among children, the results are similar, indicating that children are taking after the habits of their parents.

Someone is considered overweight when their Body Mass Index (BMI) is 25kg/m2, “obese” if it is above 30, and “morbidly obese” if their BMI is 40 or greater. Many perfectly healthy people are technically “overweight,” so for the purposes of this piece and discussing health and economic factors, we will look at obese individuals.

Obesity is typically caused by a variety of factors, from poor diet to lack of exercise. There are some people who are overweight or obese due to no fault of their own, either from a genetic syndrome, most of which will develop and become apparent before age ten, or from an illness such as hypothyroidism, Cushing’s Syndrome, or a growth hormone deficiency.

However, the majority of overweight and obese people in the world are a product of their choices, their environment, or a mixture of both. Children of overweight parents are much more likely to be overweight, and overweight or obese children are likely to continue their weight gain as they develop into adults. In situations like this, obesity becomes a vicious cycle.

What Health Problems Are Associated With Obesity?

You name it. They range from cardiovascular issues – heart disease, high blood pressure, Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) which can lead to strokes, heart attacks – to Type II Diabetes, Sleep Apnea, Acid Reflux, Gout, Osteoarthritis, and just about every form of cancer you can imagine.

Men, Listen Up

For those men who may be concerned about the adverse effects of obesity, you may want to pay extra attention to this section. A variety of erectile problems are associated with obesity, from regular ol’ erectile dysfunction (ED), to urinary incontinence, prostate issues, hypogonadism (a fancy term for not having enough little swimmers), and something that makes even this female reporter cringe: a syndrome known as “Buried Penis.”

What About Economic Issues?

Obese individuals may find it harder to secure work. which in this economy can be a huge impediment to basic survival. According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), those who do find work are often paid significantly less, up to 18 percent in some fields.

Obese workers are more likely to be injured on the job, more likely to miss work for injury or illness, and take significantly more disability leave than their non-obese counterparts.

The difference is more pronounced with women than with men, which many researchers associate with the higher societal pressure that women feel to be attractive. That same study found that less educated women were three to four times more likely to be overweight and implied that if a wide-scale anti-obesity strategy were to be implemented, up to 155 thousand lives per year could be saved in the most obese nations (like the US and Mexico).

The Cost of Doing Business with The Obese

The healthcare industry has had to manufacture special equipment capable of handling a person of larger-than-average weight, and studies have shown that obesity is one of the most costly preventable diseases in this country, far outweighing (again, no pun intended) those caused by alcoholism and drug addiction.

In 2005, the medical costs associated with obesity were $190.2 billion (that’s billion, with a b, 20 percent of total healthcare expenditures.)

In private businesses, perhaps there is a realistic reason why obese people are so much less likely to be hired. Obese workers are more likely to be injured on the job, more likely to miss work for injury or illness, and take significantly more disability leave than their non-obese counterparts.

A Duke University study found that employees with a BMI of 40 or more (that would be “morbidly obese,”) filed twice as many workers compensation claims than those with a BMI between 18 and 24.9 (considered the healthiest range).

They also had 12 times as many lost work days, typically because of injuries that they sustained from falling or while lifting something. If you think about it, these statistics make sense. Remember, they refer to the largest group of people, who are undoubtedly less mobile and athletic than those of us with normal health and a lower BMI, so tasks that may be easy for someone with a BMI of 24 – like climbing a ladder or carrying a box (or doing both at once, as I frequently had to do during my former life in retail)— are much more difficult for someone who is carrying so much extra body weight.

Lessons For the Future

One hopes that we never go back to the time where the ideal body type was the waifish model of the nineties. The women that we idolize today, while still incredibly image-conscious, are at least more reminiscent of a bygone era when feminine beauty was associated with voluptuous curves.

However, there is a marked difference between being curvy and feminine (or cuddly if you are a man) and morbidly obese; that difference is health. We need to treat every person with respect, regardless of size, but I don’t think that the answer is to say that being obese is okay, or something to be proud of. Be proud of yourself, your accomplishments, your personality; but most of all, love yourself and your body enough to take care of it.