Life-spans shrink as Americans get fatter, researchers say

July 28, 2014—Common sense tells you that being on the high end of the obesity scale isn’t exactly healthy. Now, researchers have a rather stark statistic to back that up: Extremely obese people die 6.5 to 13.7 years earlier than people of normal weight.

The large, three-decades-long study focused on people with class 3 obesity—people with a BMI (body mass index) greater than 40. For a person of average height, that’s about 100 pounds over the recommended weight. The changes in death rate for people in this group were mostly due to heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The risk of dying from these and other causes rose continuously as study participants’ BMI went up, researchers said.

About the study

BMI is a calculation that uses height and weight to estimate a person’s overall body fat. A normal BMI ranges from 18.5 to 24.9. Obesity begins at 30.0; class 3 obesity begins at 40.0.

Researchers analyzed data from 20 previous studies to determine the risk of premature death for 304,011 people of normal BMI and 9,564 people with class 3 obesity.

Researchers did not include anyone who had ever smoked or who had a history of heart disease, cancer, stroke or emphysema.

The findings

Among other things, researchers discovered higher death rates among the extremely obese. (Death rates are defined as deaths per 100,000 people per year.)

•For the extremely obese, the death rate was 856 for men and 663 for women.
•For people with normal BMI, the death rate was only about 347 for men and about 280 for women.
Compared to people with normal BMI, those with class 3 obesity also died earlier, losing between 6.5 and 13.7 years of life.

Read the full study here.

The take-home message

Weight loss can seem daunting, especially if you need to lose 100 pounds to reach a normal BMI. While the journey may be long—and a little overwhelming—experts say it’s important to get started. Even losing a little weight can help.

To begin:

•Improve your diet. Keeping track of everything you eat is a good place to start. Then, a dietitian can help you develop a meal plan that could help you lose a pound or two each week.
•Stay active. If you’re already doing some exercise, stick with it. But if you’re not exercising at all or you want to kick up the intensity, talk with your doctor first. Don’t increase your activity level without your doctor’s OK.
•Get support. Talking with others can keep your weight-loss program on track. Group sessions or one-on-one consultations may give you the boost you need.
•Ask about medications. Some people lose additional weight when certain prescription medications are part of their overall plan. Your doctor can help you decide if medications are an option.
•Consider surgery. If diet, exercise and medications aren’t working, ask your doctor if you’re a candidate for weight-loss surgery. Be sure to discuss all of the potential risks and benefits before you decide on surgery.
If you’re not quite sure that your weight qualifies as obese, this BMI calculator may help. Use it to find your BMI, and talk to your doctor about your results at your next appointment.

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